Anthologies are generally formed around a theme or some narrative through-line that is intended to make the film feel self-contained and whole. In the case of the newest horror anthology, The ABCs of Death, that theme is two-fold: Death and the letters of the alphabet. That’s it. The producers complied 26 directors, assigning each of them a letter of the alphabet to form a short film about a method of death according to a word that started with that letter. Cool concept right? Unfortunately that’s what The ABCs of Death feels like. All concept, very little film.
The serious problem with the ABCs concept is there are a lot letters in there. Asking an audience to sit through 26 independent, unconnected short films is a Herculean task of concentration. More than once during the 130 minute running time the film flirts with the attention deficit within all of us. Being introduced to 26 ideas, all of them so stylistically and thematically different, leads to a frenetic and confused state of sensory overload. What results is what feels like a Clockwork Orange style sensory film meant to appeal to the base, chemical part of our brain. All stimuli, no context. Unlike the Clockwork Orange scenario, though, this film isn’t aimed to rehabilitate us into a functional citizen. It seems more interested in rehabilitating us into something dark and generally icky.
Strangely, this frenetic, stylized approach to the shorts within The ABCs of Death is also what makes it interesting. The differing styles, mediums, and ideas that flash on screen may not fit together, but, at their best, do exhilarate and intrigue. As an exercise in film history, ranging from claymation to samurai films, and everything in-between, ABCs works just as well as most film school intro courses. In a very short period, the audience is introduced and initiated into so many styles and genres that one can’t help but be impressed by the gumption of this film.
That gumption though is what causes this to mostly fail as a film. As individual exercises there are very impressive things happening in The ABCs of Death, but as a contained title it has very little holding it all together. And, as with most anthologies, there are ebbs and flows of success. There are the standouts, the mediocre, and the downright bad, all mixed up and thrown at the audience. Combine that usual pitfall with the extreme number of entries and you get a very mixed bag of a film.
Within that mixed bag there are really only two ways to look at this anthology. As an exercise in form and as a standalone movie. The amount the audience enjoys this film really depends on which view they decide on. As an exercise in technique and form there is no question that The ABCs of Death is a success. To see 26 talented filmmakers spread their genre loving wings in this context is pretty impressive. To look at this as a film, however, a two-hour piece of narrative entertainment, the success is a bit more muddled. The ABCs of Death never really stops being interesting, but it does manage to stop being entertaining .