Full disclosure: I volunteered at Toronto After Dark, and while I can’t trash the festival to hell and back (would I? I would not), I’m not required to give the films good press.
Directors: Find the full list of 26 directors here.
R, 124 min
Definitely ok, sometimes brilliant, never terrible, ABCs of Death 2 is a solid horror anthology film. Its conceit is that 26 directors are tasked with creating memorable horror shorts based on letters of the alphabet (H is for hanging, I is for immolation, etc).
It’s the sequel to ABCs of Death, also from Drafthouse Films. Some quick internet detective work confirms what I learned from Toronto After Dark festival-goers in person: it’s much better than the first one. I can’t contribute much there because although I’ve seen ABCs of Death, I don’t remember it. At all. Maybe that is my judgement. Harsh. ABCs 2 has its ups and downs, its crowd-pleasers, and its crowd-confusers, but it’s worth a watch — especially with a group. This is thanks in part to the careful curation of the producers, but also to the quality of the editing. The shorts are given just enough room to breathe; not so much that good feelings don’t carry over to the next installment and not so little that the anthology — 26 shorts, my god! — feels overwhelming. What I can say without spoiling it is that it starts and ends big and has enough affecting, thought-provoking stories peppered throughout to carry even the weakest of the shorts.
Because ABCs of Death holds back on what each letter stands for until the end of each short — for example, title cards reveal that “A is for Asphyxiation,” often to laughs, groans, or ovations — many stories have twists. So. Spoilers start here — don’t read on if knowing the twist will take something from the experience.
Three shorts stood out for me, even a week later, as awful and awfully lazy: E Is for Equilibrium by Alejandro Brugués, P-P-P-P Scary! by Todd Rohal, and V Is for Vacation by Jermome Sable. What is the problem here, you ask? Well, E Is for Equilibrium is sexist claptrap, P-P-P-P Godawful relies on our finding stuttering hilarious, and V Is for Vacation leans on the question: What if an exotic sex worker abused you baaaack? These aren’t just problems of sensibility, but structural weaknesses in that the shorts rely on our agreeing with their politics and worldview.
E Is for Equilibrium doesn’t work unless we agree that bros do indeed come before hos: two bros, alike in beardyhood, live in peaceful, desert island isolation until a woman enters the scene. Murder follows. P-P-P-P is a stuttering joke, sepia filters, and some wacky visuals. But, really. The elevator pitch must have gone something like: “It’s Oh Stutter Where Art Thou with Beetlejuice head-shrinking effects.” V Is for Vacation relies on our sympathizing with vacationers and their loved ones not “dangerous” sex workers. Two guys pick up some girls. One bro video-calls his girlfriend the morning after. It all goes wrong when the other bro takes the phone out of his hand and starts making a ruckus which leads to the girlfriend being forced to watch as one woman, the mother of the other sex worker who it’s implied has been coerced into object penetration under dubious circumstances, wakes up and kills them out of revenge. Don’t get me wrong. These aren’t misogynistic tales of punishing women and loving every minute of it — they aren’t Hostel or even Friday the 13th — but they are markedly worse than other shorts, standing out for retrograde attitudes and sheer laziness.
That’s the bad. The rest are a mixed bag of average and excellent — 3/26 is good odds, and being smack in the middle of the film, none of them are integral to it. Now let’s talk about the good, and there is a lot of it.
The first short in ABC’s of Death 2 starts out with a stylish guns-and-gangsters thriller gone wrong. It’s fantastic. A would-be assassin sneaks into a high security building, busts into the air ducts, and slowly makes his way toward his target. The problem? These are real world air ducts. They’re dirty and messy, infested with rats and insects, and strewn with dust bunnies and screws that have come loose. They aren’t graded for the weight of a man. They narrow as they come to a vent. It all goes bad. A Is for Amateur – damn right. This is a slickly directed short, low on dialogue or gore, heavy on the laughs. E.L. Katz keeps it low key and the horror is more effective for it. Our hapless protagonist puts his hand down on something sharp, tearing his hand up. The moment is unembellished, and we feel it. He slams into the side of the duct with all of his weight. Spits out blood and groans, now swaying. We feel that, too. It’s realistic — real-seeming — and visceral, and the punch line is perfect.
K Is for Knell, directed by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, is a bit more mysterious. Is it supernatural or sci-fi? Hard to tell, but it’s visually and aurally arresting. A woman is painting her toenails. She hears a strange sound from outside her apartment window — a knell. There’s a cloud of liquid, black like her nail polish, seemingly self-directed, hovering in the air above her apartment complex. As it tapers off, her attention is drawn by crashing and screaming to the building across the way. One by one, every window frames a scene of brutal domestic violence. And then, they all turn to look at her. Of all the shorts, this is the one I wanted more of. It could easily be expanded into a feature, all moodiness and mystery. I won’t get into the ending — please, watch this one yourself.
C Is for Capital Punishment, from Julian Gilbey, is a finely executed (har, har) indictment of mob rule, the valorization of “just” killing, and the institution of capital punishment itself. It’s simple: the short is set in a small community, seemingly held in the sway of a local cult. It’s not a religious cult, but the kind of we-before-thee small town dictatorship that’s so common in survival stories and road trip horror. A man has been accused of kidnapping and murdering a teenage girl. He is put on trial in a neighborhood living room, men hold him in place while community elders shout at him, demanding a confession and others throw things and spit on him. They find him guilty and take him into the woods. The girl, it’s revealed on the radio, has been found alive, a runaway. Oh, shit. It’s not just the concept that makes C Is for Capital Punishment great, it’s the momentum. This is a fast-moving short that conveys the chaos of early investigations and panicked rush to judgement. There is a sense throughout of if only. If only, they knew earlier the girl was alive. If only, he could have convinced just one person to take his side. If only, some community leader could have calmed them down. If only.
Some of the other shorts are conceptual delights. O is for Ochlocracy, or mob rule, by Hajime Ohata, sees halfway-cured zombies putting the living on trial for their actions during the zombie outbreak. Scroll up to the head at the top of this post. He’s a character witness. T is for Torture Porn by Jen and Sylvia Soska unleashes a hungry sex demon on a porn set much to the crew’s dismay — tentacles have never been so terrifying. W is for Wish by Steven Kostanski is a tidy, modern fable about getting what you wish for. The star here is the schlocky 80s set and costume design. Two adolescent boys wish they could help their action figure heroes in the war against some great evil, and they can in a Masters of the Universe nightmare world. But oh, M Is for Masticate by Robert Boocheck. Can I tell you what this one is about? I won’t reveal the twist. A man runs down the street in the slowest of slow motion, his every drop of sweat lovingly captured by the cameras. And he bites people. It’s grotesque without being outlandish. It conveys a terrible rubber-necking sort of thrill. And it’s. So. Funny.
The verdict is obvious, isn’t it? ABCs of Death 2 is well worth your time.