Film Review: The ABCs of Death

Viewers of a certain age and whimsically morbid temperament may be reminded of writer/illustrator Edward Gorey's 1963 <i>The Gashlycrumb Tinies</i>, a spare and mordantly funny book about the dreadful demises of 26 children, from Amy who fell down the

Producers Ant Timpson and Tim League recruited 28 filmmakers (not 26, the film's advertising materials notwithstanding; there are two teams in the mix) to write and direct short, sharp shockers about death in all its infinite variety, one for each letter of the alphabet. The good news is that The ABCs of Death doesn't place the U.S. at the center of the contemporary horror universe: While six segments were helmed by American directors, including Ti West (House of the Devil) and Angela Bettis (better known as an actress whose credits include the 2002 remake of Carrie), the rest are an international mix representing countries that include Japan, France, Spain, Denmark, Thailand, Serbia and Norway—all in their original languages.

The bad news almost goes without saying. The ABCs of Death is wildly uneven, the inherent weakness of anthology movies—even the revered Dead of Night (1945) includes an excruciating comic-relief segment involving golfing ghosts. That said, no portion of The ABCs of Death equals Dead of Night's high point, which launched a thousand nightmares about malevolent ventriloquist's dummies, though Marcel (Deadgirl) Sarmiento's "D is for Dogfight," a wordless parable about the unbreakable bond between a man and his dog comes close; the challenge of setting up a shocking eleventh-hour twist that plays fair with the viewer is multiplied exponentially when you have less than five minutes in which to do it, and Sarmiento pulls it off.

"X is for XXL," directed by Xavier Gens (Frontieres), takes body-image obsession to its grotesquely logical conclusion; Timo Tjahjanto's "L is for Libido" is admirably repellent, if reminiscent of Tom Shankland and Clive Bradley's 2007 feature The Killing Gene, and "I is for Ingrown," directed by Jorge Michel Grau (We Are What We Are) is a surprisingly haunting distillation of the violence- against-women imagery that permeates the genre.

Low points include Noboru (The Machine Girl) Iguchi's "F is for Fart," an apocalyptic ode to passing gas; West's "M is for Miscarriage," a lazy one-joke snippet without a joke; Jon (TV's “Metalocalypse”) Schnepp's "W is for WTF!," a pointless collection of juvenile, fanboy gross-out imagery; and Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) Yoshihiro's equally incoherent "Z is for Zetsumetsu, which does feature the bizarrely striking image of a girl jiggling together her tattooed breasts, one inked with the World Trade Center and the other with a plane.

In the end, The ABCs of Death is the sum of its disparate parts, and the bad drags down the good—it's especially unfortunate that the viewer's last impression is "Z is for Zetsumetsu," because as any experienced filmmaker will tell you, it's much better for a movie to start badly and end well than the other way around: Last impressions color everything that precedes them.