Horror anthologies seem like they’re about to turn into all the rage now, and leading the pack has been the V/H/S series (now on its third installment) and The ABCs of Death, the 2013 collection consisting of 26 different short films and vignettes, each by a different director and each corresponding to a different letter of the alphabet. Producers Ant Timpson and Tim League (the latter of Alamo Drafthouse fame) have managed to corral 26 different filmmakers for the sequel, which follows the same format and manages to recreate the same kind of rollercoaster ride in quality as the first omnibus.
Like the first movie, The ABCs of Death 2 features a mix of horror vets and lesser known names. Among the filmmakers this time around are Vincenzo Natali (Splice), E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills), Alejandro Brugues (Juan of the Dead), Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter), Rodney Ascher (Room 237), Jen and Sylvia Soska (American Mary), Julien Maury and Alexander Bustillo (Inside) and many others, their countries of origin ranging from the U.S. to Austria to Japan to Nigeria.
An anthology like this, in a way, is almost impossible to review as a cohesive film; aside from the alphabet linking device, there is no running theme or overall concept to the movie except, perhaps, finding creative or macabre (or both) ways to die or kill someone. The shorts range in length from a couple of minutes to perhaps 10, and there is no common ground on style or format — the vignettes can bounce from stop-motion animation to live action to whatever suits the filmmaker (all but two, however, are live-action this time around). It’s the cinematic equivalent — although far more adult-oriented — of little paperbacks I remember reading as a kid, filled with ghost stories that ran two or three pages each.
Perhaps in a way, both installments of The ABCs of Death are perfect viewing for the generation living life through iPads and mobile phones. The films vary in quality but all have an ephemeral quality — they flicker by so quickly that one is hard-pressed to remember most of the segments. They get to the point and most do little to involve the viewer on any level except a visceral one. In other words, an anthology like this is mainly a gimmick, and like most gimmicks the novelty can wear off pretty fast. With 26 shorts in two hours, it starts to become a grind.
Some of the segments stand out in terms of sheer outrageousness, like Erik Matti’s “Invincible,” in which a group of family members try to kill their grandmother, who refuses to go quietly after living 120 years, and “Masticate” (by first-time filmmaker Robert Boocheck, who won a contest to participate), in which a seemingly zombified man runs down the street and begins chowing down on someone in slow motion — until we see in a flashback how he got that way. Others are thoroughly unpleasant, like Julian Gilbey’s “Capital Punishment,” in which a supposedly satirical sequence involving a beheading does not amuse at all, and Jim Hosking’s “Granddad,” in which a skanky young man finds out his equally decrepit grandfather is sleeping under his bed.
Fessenden’s “Nexus” tones down the gore — a frequent crutch in most of these — in favor of something more existential as several people come together in the wrong place at the exact wrong moment, while Natali’s “Utopia” is a chilling look at a shopping mall in which society’s least desirable citizens are given a deliberately cruel send-off. Robert Morgan’s “Deloused” is a truly eerie stop-motion nightmare. But for every interesting piece, there are two or three more — like the stupid “Vacation,” the too-obvious “Torture Porn” and the silly “P-P-P-P Scary” (which stretches its letter connection past the breaking point) — that start to lose one’s attention again.
Maybe it’s a perverse joke, but the best segment is saved for last — Chris Nash’s “Zygote,” in which a woman allows her child to grow inside her body well past the usual nine months. Nash makes an attempt at both character development and a tone of more than just irony or raunchiness, coupled with a truly disturbing premise.
The ABCs of Death 2 at least looks better than its predecessor, with the production values and budgets beefed up all around. And while a few of the stories do make their mark, the bulk of them are more interested in generating quick or cheap shocks than getting under one’s skin in the way that great horror cinema can. The movie (and this series) is probably a lot of fun to watch drunk with a bunch of friends, but you’ll be hard-pressed to remember much when you’ve sobered up.
The ABCs of Death 2 is in theaters and on demand now.