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The die is cast
THE ABCs OF DEATH 2, the second instalment of what what is shaping up to be an anthology franchise, doesn't quite match up to the first, but still has its share of inventive components. Gort warmed to the film after a couple of viewings, but wonders what happened to the extras on Monster's DVD.
 

I had a lot of time for the 2012 anthology movie The ABCs of Death, which consisted of 26 short films, all of which were based around the theme of death. The clue's in the title. Each was handled by a different filmmaker, all of whom selected or were assigned a different letter of the alphabet and given a small budget and complete creative freedom. The project brought out the weaknesses in some (the talented Ti West tends to get singled out here, and with bloody good reason), whilst others seemed to relish the format and its restrictions. That some of the films were a bit naff is hardly surprising, but the weaker ones were balanced by some boffo episodes, and a small but memorable sprinkling of absolute gems.

Not everyone enjoyed the film as much as I did. There were plenty of dismissive critical moans, some of which complained that not all of the films could be labelled as horror. Then again, why should they be? The filmmakers were required make a short film in which death was a key component, and in that respect a film about the grieving process following the loss of a loved one, or a piece on how industrial toxins are poisoning forest plants would both qualify for inclusion. That said, the film was sold on its horror credentials, and was distributed in the UK by horror specialists Monster Pictures. But it's The ABCs of Death, not the ABCs of Horror, okay? Glad we got that settled, because what went for the first film also applies here.

With all that in mind, I found the prospect of a second collection along the same lines rather appealing. With a bit of luck it would attract a new mix of established and fledgling filmmakers who would doubtless have studied the contributions of their forebears and be looking to outshine them. The predictably titled The ABCs of Death 2 thus had the potential to be a bit of a belter. But what we actually get is more of the same, a similarly uneven mix of good and not so good, but lacking any really dynamite segments along the lines of Kaare Andrews' superb V is for Vagitus from the first film. Maybe this is why my first viewing of the film left me profoundly unsatisfied, waiting as I was for the supreme high that never came. It probably doesn't help that a couple of cinematic worthy intentions make well worn and frankly obvious points, but do so as if they're telling you something revelatory. We are informed, for example, that if an angry mob executes a man they think is guilty of murdering a child, they might just in their blind haste have got the wrong guy. Wow, who'd have thought? Well that's told me.

But a second viewing, one perhaps not coloured by unreasonably high expectations (then again, is it unreasonable to expect a film to be great?), saw me warm to the film as a whole and enjoy many of the component parts more than I had the first time around. How much of that is down to me expecting not to enjoy them this time is difficult to say, but I certainly got a lot more out of that second viewing. A couple of the sequences still state the obvious with an air of profundity, and a few seem to have the germ of an idea that they then don't know what to do with, but there are a fair number of others that make rather good use of their potentially time restrictive 4 or 5 minutes. Skimming other reviews has shown that favourites vary wildly, with one site pouring praise on a segment that I thought was a little weak. I see no reason to elaborate further. My own pick would include Robert Morgan's gorgeously twisted D for Deloused, Marvin Kren's nicely thought-out R is for Roulette, and Chris Nash's deliciously grotesque closing piece, Z is for Zygote. A few of the others came close, but you'll be able to quickly work out which ones I enjoyed from the comments below.

As before, I'm going to take a quick trip through all 26 films. The comments are personal opinions that you are free to disagree with. If you want to go in cold (always best), then I'd give the next section a miss, though don't hold your breath for the extra features.

I'll sign off here by noting that I'm still not sure how I feel about the film's title music, whose child-whisper-sung "la...la-la-la...la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la" has an definite ring of piss-taking parody.

the films

A is for Amateur
The preparation for and execution of a professional hit is presented in cheesily over-stylised fashion, then is rewound to reveal the comical reality, that the hit man in question is a bungling fool. Rather witty, as it happens, and it also comes to an amusing conclusion. Directed by E.L. Katz, who gave us the 2013 Cheap Thrills.

B is for Badger
A self-important TV presenter loses his rag with the crew during the filming of the latest episode of his nature series, and discovers that the toxins from a nearby power station have had an unexpected effect on the local badger population. Nicely performed and technically impressive, with the whole thing handled in (what looks like) a single shot, including physical effects. Directed by Julian Barratt, writer and actor on The Mighty Boosh, who also plays the presenter.

C is for Capital Punishment
A well made and well intentioned but state-the-obvious critique of mob justice and capital punishment – about twenty seconds in I knew how this one would play out. Horrible makeup effects, though. Directed by Julian Gilbey of A Lonely Place to Die.

D is for Deloused
A fabulously designed and brilliantly creepy Svankmajer-esque stop-motion animation in which a man is given a lethal injection, then bitten by a giant bug, and then... oh, it's pointless me trying to describe what happens next. You'll just have to see it. Possibly my favourite segment in the film. Directed by Robert Morgan, whose other work I now really want to see.

E is for Equilibrium
The comradeship of a pair of beardy male castaways is put in jeopardy when a beautiful woman washes up on their beach, but things don't pan out quite how you might expect. Dialogue free and moderately amusing, it ends like a Fosters' lager commercial. Directed by Juan of the Dead's Alejandro Brugués.

F is for Falling
A bit of political commentary from the writer-directors of Big Bad Wolves. A female Israeli parachutist who is caught in a tree and can't work out how to get her parachute off is discovered by an armed Palestinian youth. A touchingly humanist piece from Israeli filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado.

G is for Grandad
A 20-something man who lives with his cranky grandfather gets a bit of a shock when he goes to bed one night. Not much to this one besides a good blood spurt effect. Directed by Jim Hosking.

H is for Head Games
A kiss turns into surrealistically violent conflict in what is instantly recognisable as a Bill Plympton animation. Amusing and inventive, but does revisit territory Plympton has covered before.

I is for Invincible
A family attempts to kill their 120-year-old mother – who appears to have mutated into an Evil Dead zombie – in order to finally get their hands on their long-awaited inheritance. But no matter what they do to her, she just won't die. Thin on content, but ghoulish. Directed by Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti.

J is for Jesus
A wealthy bigot discovers that his son is having a homosexual relationship and has him kidnapped by a pair of merciless exorcists, who set about trying to torture these satanic urges from him. A worthy assault on religious intolerance from director Dennison Ramalho, who talks about his film and his hatred of religion in an interesting interview over at Bloody Disgusting.*

K is for Knell
This one starts really well, as a woman steps onto her apartment balcony and witnesses an aerial apparition that seems to trigger murderous behaviour in the surrounding properties. Then the killers all walk to their windows and look in her direction. Shit, that's creepy. What follows is interesting, but may well leave you scratching your head when the ending abruptly arrives. Some help is provided by co-director Bruno Samper (who worked in collaboration with Lithuanian filmmaker Kristina Buozyte) in at interview over at Collider.com.**

L is for Legacy
A folklore driven piece from Nigerian filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen involving human sacrifice and a destructive beast with supernatural powers. This one would really benefit from a little background detail to help the uninitiated. The presence of English subtitles feels a little condescending, given that the characters are speaking English with a Nigerian accent which I, for one, had no problem understanding.

M is for Masticate
A large, bearded man dressed only in soiled underpants and sporting zombie eyes attacks passers-by in ultra-slow motion. Don't hold your breath for the "oh really?" punch line. Directed by American filmmaker Robert Boocheck, whose IMDb portrait is scarier than this film.***

N is for Nexus
A goth couple make their separate ways to a Halloween costume party, while a cab driver is berated by an impatience female passenger as he drives and is further distracted by a newspaper crossword. Can anyone guess how this is going to end? Here's a clue – all of you can. Imaginatively directed by actor-producer-director Larry Fessenden (who also has a hell of an IMDb picture), but come on...

O is for Ochlocracy
In one of the neatest ideas here, a woman is put of trial for her life for killing zombies during a widespread outbreak of 'Apparent Death Syndrome', in a courtroom populated by afflicted humans who recovered due to the eventual discovery of a de-zombification drug. The work of Japanese director Hajime Ohata.

P is for P-P-P-P Scary!
Talk about cheating on your letter. Three convicts – a stammering father and his two huge-nosed and hyper-stammering sons – wander around in the dark with only a candle to light their way and encounter a dancing man and some Adobe After Effects facial distortions. Shot as a monochrome nightmare farce and directed by Todd Rohal, it's both interesting and annoying.

Q is for Questionnaire
As a man does rather well in a street questionnaire, he fails to realise what the consequences will be. We know, because the (well acted) Q&A is intercut with the grisly punch line, effectively neutering it. Made by Room 237 director Rodney Ascher.

R is for Roulette
Yep, as you would expect, it's the Russian kind of roulette, as two men and a women sit around a table passing a gun between them that has only one bullet and taking turns to pull the trigger with the barrel at their temple. Carried along by the tension over who will die and when, it's a well made, well acted piece from Blood Glacier director Marvin Kren, and has a satisfying explanation for what's actually going on. Good one.

S is for Split
A man on a business trip phones home to his wife, who becomes victim to a home invasion attack during the call. Madrid-born director Juan Martínez Moreno makes surprisingly effective use of split screen to keep all three characters visible at once, and the payoff is rather neat.

T is for Torture Porn
A seemingly submissive and unhappy woman is auditioned and abused by a team of misogynistic male porn filmmakers, but she ain't what she seems. A peculiar revenge rape piece from the Soska sisters, they of American Mary and Dead Hooker in a Trunk.

U is for Utopia
In a Gattaca-like future, an imperfect male specimen is looked down on by the populace and cleaned up by the system. Given that he's in his thirties and has probably been going to the same job for years, one wonders how he went unnoticed by this hyper-efficient society for so long. Worthy as social commentary, but there are no surprises here, which itself is a surprise given that it was directed by Vincenzo Natali, the man who gave us Cube and Splice.

V is for Vacation
A dude on holiday makes a video call on his phone to his girlfriend, but reckons without his coked-up, utter dick of a mate, whose subsequent antics take a seriously dark turn. Presented as a single video call with the edits hidden in camera movements, this is a nicely unsettling short with more than a whiff of social commentary from Stage Fright director Jerome Sable.

W is for Wish
A commercial for Masters of the Universe-like 'World of Zorb' action figures takes a sort-of serious turn when kids playing with the toys are sucked into the real World of Zorb to help the cowardly Prince Casio. An interesting idea that goes nowhere of note, but it certainly looks more expensive than it probably was. Directed by Father's Day's Steven Kostanski.

X is for Xylophone
I always feel for the poor bugger who ends up with X, but Inside and Livid directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo rise to the occasion. A grandmother is driven to distraction by her young granddaughter's tuneless banging on a toy xylophone, which triggers a perhaps predictable but still spectacularly gruesome response.

Y is for Youth
A teenage girl reflects on the cruelty and indifference of her mother and stepfather, who in her mind are tormented and assaulted by physical manifestations of their failings. The expected surrealistic entry from Japan has undertones serious enough to make you wonder whether make-up artist turned director Sôichi Umezawa has drawn on his own experience. Man, I hope not.

Z is for Zygote
A man leaves his heavily pregnant wife in an isolated house with a jar containing a special root for her to chew on, one that will delay the birth of their child until he returns. Thirteen years later, the root has all but gone and the child, still unborn, has mentally and physically entered its teenage years... Pregnant women and men who think that birth is a beautiful gift from mother nature may want to give this well-made but eye-poppingly grisly short from special effects man turned director Chris Nash a miss. I really liked it.

sound and vision

I'll hazard an easy guess here and suggest that all of the films were shot in HD on anything from RED cameras to Canon DSLRs, and thus the image quality should be top notch. And while the contrast and colour have been tweaked in different ways on each of the films – sometimes with subtlety, more obviously in others – for the most part it is. When the image is presented to its best advantage, the transfer responds well, displaying a pleasing contrast range, lively colour and a very decent level of detail for DVD. There is some visible compression banding in some of the fades up and down to black at the beginning and end of episodes, but otherwise this is a good job. The picture is framed 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced

When it comes to the soundtrack, you can choose between Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. As ever, the dialogue sits centrally in the 5.1 and is spread wider on the stereo track, but the 5.1 also has a tad more finesse, better bass response (the LFE really comes to life in places), and a few of the films are mixed in surround, albeit making only subtle use of the rear speakers. Both tracks are clear and have the sort of excellent dynamic range you'd expect from a modern, digitally mixed film.

extra features

On the basis of the sizeable collection of extra features on the Monster Pictures Blu-ray of The ABCs of Death, I put aside an evening to cover this one. I needn't have bothered. All we have here is a Theatrical Trailer (1:40), one snappily and rather seductively compiled from the teasingly diverse collection of extracts. Compared to the earlier disc, this feel really anaemic. Is there more on the Blu-ray?

summary

Not exactly a must-buy, but those who enjoyed the first film – or bits of it anyway – should definitely to check it out, and there's enough good stuff here to make it worthwhile, though do be prepared for the fact that not all of these are horror pieces. The almost complete lack of special features is a real disappointment, particularly given its extras-busy forebear. The film's still pretty good, if not quite up to the standard of its predecessor. But then, you probably expected that, didn't you?

 


* http://bloody-disgusting.com/interviews/3316306/abcs-death-2-director-dennison-ramalho-vs-religion-exclusive-interview/

** http://collider.com/bruno-samper-abcs-of-death-2-interview/

*** It's since been changed. Bit of a shame, really.

The ABCs of Death 2

USA / New Zealand / Canada / Israel / Japan 2014
mins
directed by
Rodney Ascher
Julian Barratt
Robert Boocheck
Alejandro Brugués
Kristina Buozyte
Alexandre Bustillo
Larry Fessenden
Julian Gilbey
Jim Hosking
Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen
E.L. Katz
Aharon Keshales
Steven Kostanski
Marvin Kren
Juan Martínez Moreno
Erik Matti
Julien Maury
Robert Morgan
Chris Nash
Vincenzo Natali
Hajime Ohata
Navot Papushado
Bill Plympton
Dennison Ramalho
Todd Rohal
Jerome Sable
Bruno Samper
Jen Soska
Sylvia Soska
Sôichi Umezawa
produced by
Tim League
Ant Timpson
written by
Robert Boocheck
Alejandro Brugués
Jeff Buhler
Alexandre Bustillo
David Chirchirillo
Álex de la Iglesia
Julian Gilbey
Jeremy Gillespie
Toby Harvard
Jim Hosking
Juan Martínez Moreno
Julien Maury
Nicholas Musurca
Chris Nash
Hajime Ohata
Jerome Sable
Jen Soska
Sylvia Soska
Sôichi Umezawa
Marc Walkow
cinematography
Giora Bejach
Jon Britt
Pierce Derks
José Roberto Eliezer
Nick Gillespie
Alex Gomez
Adam Hall
Clay Liford
John Rutland
Antoine Sanier
Ioana Vasile
Mahlon Todd Williams
editing
Lindsay Allikas
Richard Blackburn
Mark Burnett
Michael Lane
Russell Lichter
Hajime Ohata
Nick Wenger
John Wesley Whitton
music
Raphaël Gesqua
Jeremy Gillespie
Mads Heldtberg
Haim Frank Ilfman
Alex Khaskin
Sergio Moure
Kyle Newmaster
Zno
Vytis Puronas
Fred Sandoval
Stefan Will
starring
Eric Jacobus
Andy Nyman
Julian Barratt
Will Adamsdale
Ian Virgo
Ryan Winsley
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Martina Garcia
Fernando Costa
Dana Meinrath
Tawfeek Barthom
Nicolas Amer
Richard Hardisty
Sherry Lara
Jun Urbano
Francisco Barreiro
Roberto Alencar
Julija Steponaityte
Michel Isokpan
Ehigiator Joy Nosa
Pat Daniel
Lauren Molina
Michael Dragon Vincent
Aki Morita
Takahiro Ono
Bryan Connolly
David Strong
Vincent Pendergast
Ivan Dimitrov
Jordan D Morris
Jess Lane
André Hennicke
Alma Leiberg
Andreas Döhler
Victoria Broom
Alan McKenna
Tristan Risk
Conor Sweeney
James McDougall
Mark Grossman
Jerod Meagher
Petra Lo
Ranelle Estrallado
Willem Halfyard
Rafferty Blumberg
Beatrice Dalle
Tess Maury
Sakurako Mizuki
Shigeru Oxe
Asuka Kurosawa
Delphine Roussel
Timothy Paul McCarthy

disc details
region 0
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
Fixed on non-English language segments only
extras
Trailer
distributor
Monster Pictures
release date
23 March 2015
review posted
15 April 2015

related review
The ABCs of Death

See all of Gort's reviews