Last week saw the release of the The ABC’s of Death 2, and with the first streaming on Netflix I figured now might be the time to give this fascinating concept some love. For those not into underground horror, the premise of this series is that each feature consists of 26 short films assigned to different directors from around the world, each titled according to a letter of the alphabet.
That’s two films which have bequeathed to us a total of 52 bite-size slices of horror in the last few years, so I thought it might be worth our while to take a look at some of the best offerings.With such a massive number of shorts, it’s safe to say that the results are mixed. Each director was given complete artistic freedom, which is to say that the films run the gamut from utterly nonsensical to terrifying and disturbing to absolutely hilarious to just gross.
There’s gore, irony, animation, wit, brutality, and bizarre sexuality on display in addition to just about anything else you can imagine. These are five of the most memorable and enjoyable segments for me from two of the most unique horror presentations of recent years. Naturally, they will be in alphabetical order. There are some pretty extreme visuals in some of these if you aren’t horror fanatics, so proceed with caution,
E is for Exterminate
I’m a little biased with this pick because I’m intensely arachnophobic but seeing that there are ironically very, very few legitimately scary spider films out there, this one has got to be included. It was directed by horror sweetheart Angela Bettis, who starred in the excellent May and has remained a mainstay in Lucky McKee’s films since. Iterestingly, McKee starred in Bettis’ only other directing credit, Roman.
A lot of killer spider stories have a keen and basic misunderstanding of arachnophobia. They think that making spiders giant or having a million of them is what’s scary. Not even. What’s scary about spiders is the ease with which they can hide from us. A black widow only needs about an inch of shadow to be nearlyinvisible and their ability to get literally anywhere makes them a nightmare. I once walked face-first into one that was spinning a web in my hallway one night when the light had burnt out. I can’t even feel safe in my own goddamn home.
Anyways, E for Exterminate does a great job illustrating what we arachnophobes can’t stop thinking about: that if these small creatures ever gained intelligence, they could probably wipe us out. The protagonist in the film fails in his attempt to kill the offending spider, and it gets back at him by biting him nightly on the face as he sleeps. If that doesn’t send a shiver up your spine good for you, badass. But the kicker here comes when tiny spiderlings begin crawling from his ear where the arachnid has apparently been laying its eggs as well. Can…….can they really do that? [runs for q-tip]
F is for Fart
Now it’s time to get plain damn wierd. This segment was brought to us by modern Japanese grindhouse kingpin Noboru Iguchi, who specializes in pushing his country’s native brand of exploitationist absurdism to its utmost extreme. His other films include such insanity as The Machine Girl, Robo-Geisha, and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and it’s pretty safe to say they aren’t for everyone. They are, however, for me. People take themselves way too seriously. This is the one film out of all of the where I called the director before they were credited onscreen. Nobody else would ever make this film.
I’ve heard a lot of atheist philosophy, buy F is for Fart is the first one to use the femine social stigma against flatulence as its basis. The story of forbidden love between teacher and student is interrupted by an apocalyptic eruption of poisonous gas, which causes our heroine to decide that if she has to die in that way she wants to spend her last moments suffocating on the eruptions from her beloved sensei’s delicate derriere and pass beyond the boundaries of good taste together with her.
This is definiely a love it or hate it film, but you will have a strong opinion about it, whether it’s abject disgust, hilarity, or just complete and utter confusion. The classical music accompaniment really sets the tone here. Iguchi is contrasting the profound with the moronic -the sacred with the profane, if you like- and using this theme to make a personal statement about his own unusual approach to the film medium. And why shouldn’t we embrace the taboo, explore the cleverness of stupidity for its own sake, or find enjoyment in the disgusting? Yet somehow this isn’t even the most bizarre or obscene Japanese entry in the first ABC’s of Death. Not even close.
M is for Masticate
Probably more than any other segment in the films, this one shows how simple it can be to make an awesome short film. Great entertainment can be as simple as clever timing, presentation, and proper utilization of the almighty kicker. In a little over two minutes you get horror, gore, comedy, and then the overwhelming urge to yell “TOO SOON!” while laughing in response to the extremely unexpected reference to a real life event.
The choice of music is as excellent as it is unexpected too. It preps the viewer for the laugh to come by setting the tone in spite of the horrific imagery and the use of slow motion and sudden shift from slo-mo psychedelic surrealism to real time and real sound as the bullet makes contact is fantastic.
Anyone with a great idea and a little skill could make a film like this with minimal effort. The beauty is in the simplicity. M is for Masticate feels a lot longer than it is because it frankly packs more genuine style and entertainment value in its under two and a half minute running time than some two hour comediesI’ve seen in their entirety. It was directed by Robert Boocheck, a former intern of Sam Raimi’s with a few obscure titles to his name who won a contest with this entry to have it included in The ABC’s of Death 2.
U is for Utopia
Sci-fi legend HG Wells wrote in his thoughtfully self-indulgent novel A Modern Utopia that “there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it”. I don’t have any explanation why this out of all the films isn’t available for viewing on the internet so I guess I’m giving the synopsis of this short film’s homage to the proposed ideal of an ideal society.
The film opens with shots of beautiful, elegant, impeccably dressed people shopping in a shiny, happy pristine world. We then are introduced to a neckbearded fellow awkwardly making his way through the population center, bumbling about as he goes. The pretty people stop, stare, and pull out their smartphones, which scan the disruptive intruder, setting off an alarm. The masses part as a mobile lawenforcement coffin makes it way to the site of the disruption, pops open, pulls the loser inside, and incinerates him on the spot to the applause of the masses. Perfect world: achieved.
Vincenzo Natali of Splice and Cube fame is responsible for this nice slice of dark social satire. The idea of a perfect society is something that has fascinated scholars and philosophers, but it’s obviously something that can’t be achieved if for no other reason than every single person has a different idea of what that entails. Making something perfect for one group of people requires ether enslavement or elimination of opposing groups of people, which hardly meets any sane moral definition of ideal.
What makes this entry so fascinating is the way it takes a giant sanctimonious dump on the ideals of those among us who think the world would be a better place if we were all held to their lofty standards. Everybody doesn’t meet somebody’s standards, but very few of them deserve extermination, which is the only practical way to remove them from the social equation. Sorry, idealists.
X is for XXL
This poignant and disturbing tale of modern body image is brilliant and probably hits extremely close to home for a lot of overweight people. It’s hard to watch, but part of that is because it rings so true. Even the internet’s ever-shouting “social justice” community has had a hard time coming down on the right side of what has become one of the last bastions of acceptable social abuse: body shaming.
This short film features a day in the life of an overweight woman surrounded by media featuring female perfection in bikinis smiling and encouraging her to do as she does while strangers in public loudly mock and discuss her appearance. Now, anyone who even knows the meaning of the word “psychology” has got to be aware that certain people deal with stress and depression by attempting to balancing the negative emotions with the physical pleasure they receive from food. This makes the abuse part of the self-fulfilling cycle of obesity for many people.
In X is for XXL, the protagonist finally reaches her breaking point and begins attacking her own body, hacking off parts of herself with the image of the slim, sexy, smiling model on TV flashing before her eyes. It seems extreme, but in abusing or judging a person for their current size, are we not encouraging the concept? We are literally asking another human being to reduce themselves to meet our personal preference whether by surgery or by diet and exercise. Self-mutilation is not as far off from that conceptually as we might like to think.
French director Xavier Gens has made a name for himself in the horror community with Frontier(s) and The Divide, and he’s broken into mainstream Hollywood with his film adaptation of the Hitman video game series, but this short film is my favorite thing he’s done so far. Combining effective horror with such savage, literal, and spot-on social commentary is pretty rare, and doing it in so short a run time is exceptional.
There’s obviously plenty more where that came from, but those are my favorites from the first two ABC’s of Death collections. It wasn’t a very easy narrowing-down process. Feel free to let me know which ones you think I should have included.