Drafthouse Films’ themed anthology The ABCs Of Death might as well be called The ABCs Of Death, Sex, Gore, Tits, Bodily Fluids, And Anything Else We Hope Jaded Viewers Might Still Find Shocking Or Transgressive. It’s its own self-contained sick & twisted shorts festival, in which horror-film directors around the world were handed a letter of the alphabet, a small budget, and carte blanche to develop their own short within the anthology’s Edward Gorey-by-way-of-Rob Zombie theme. A few of the resulting 26 pieces—from “A Is For Apocalypse” to “Z Is For Zetsumetsu” (Japanese for “extinction”)—are openly playful, like Anders Morgenthaler’s cartoon “K Is For Klutz,” in which a puckish, squeaking turd refuses to be flushed, setting off a battle of wills with the woman who produced it. Others are too surreal to be taken as horror, like “H Is For Hydro-Electric Diffusion,” which falls somewhere between a live-action Tex Avery cartoon and a furry’s wet dream, as a fur-suited, live-action, pulchritudinous Nazi stripper fox lures a British bulldog into a death trap.
But most are rushed exercises in telegraphic storytelling, struggling to make a point, or at least find a punchline, in a bare few minutes. There’s no framing to The ABCs Of Death, virtually no downtime between shorts—each one ends with the title, presented in CGI children’s alphabet blocks floating in blood—and not enough effective horror amid all the smirking humor and splattery exploitation. For a film so dedicated to visions of grotesque, unexpected death, ABCs often feels childish, like it’s endlessly giggling at its own prurient naughtiness.
There are a number of gems wedged between the masturbation contest, the rain of blood, the death-by-fart-cloud, and the over-the-top catfights. Marcel Sarmiento’s chilling “D Is For Dogfight” uses slow motion and smart editing to suggest a vicious battle between a battered human boxer and a canine counterpart, equating them even as they convincingly brutalize each other. Xavier Gens’ stomach-churning “X Is For XXL” features an overweight woman who reacts to a wearying day of abuse by going home and creating an acceptably supermodel-thin version of herself with an electric carving knife. And Lee Hardcastle, whose “T Is For Toilet” beat many other “T” submissions in a contest to win inclusion in the film, presents an agreeably loopy Claymation fantasy of potty training gone horribly wrong. Many of the shorts are visibly impressive, given their scant budgets, and there’s no end of visual and thematic creativity stretched throughout the anthology; there are, after all, a million horrible, memorable ways to die. There just aren’t enough ways to tell an memorable story in a couple of minutes, particularly not while leaving room for a wide variety of exploding heads and cleaved limbs.