Review originally published September 25, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of Fantastic Fest. The version screened was a work-in-progress.
Many anthology films are defined by their hits and misses. Rare is the uniformly enjoyable omnibus, and in that it's an ambitious 26-part anthology of horror shorts, “The ABCs of Death” cannot help but magnify the usual scattershot qualities of such an endeavor.
As one might have determined from the titles, producers Tim League and Ant Timpson gathered together enough current genre filmmakers -- among them Nacho Vigalondo (“Timecrimes”), Xavier Gens (“The Divide”) Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (“V/H/S”), Jason Eisener (“Hobo with a Shotgun”), Ti West (“The Innkeepers”) and Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”) -- to assign each a letter of the alphabet, from which they were invited to extrapolate their own means of ending life, whether it’s by way of animal attacks, mishaps involving guns, good old-fashioned murder or even the Apocalypse.
The ranks of filmmakers boast an admirably international diversity, and upwards of twenty of the project’s twenty-eight directors happen to be veterans of League’s own Fantastic Fest. The film in turn doubles as an encapsulation of its defining spirit. A brutal dogfight becomes a story of deserved vengeance; body image concerns manifest themselves through wince-worthy violence. There are a handful of animated and utterly abstract contributions, some slices of Japanese weirdness sneak in, and no single orifice is safe, with every segment bridged by a blood red transition and united by a taste for the taboo. The end result is like a Whitman’s Sampler exclusively made up of dark chocolate, often more hilarious than horrifying by design.
But of course, it is possible to get sick of too many sweets, and the concept fundamentally protects every short as an equal darling. Two chapters tackle pedophilia, two are done from a first-person perspective, while two more indulge in similarly winky “whatever will we do with our letter?” meta jokes. Plenty of entries end with an O. Henry twist, while others carry no punch beyond the reveal of their title. Any conventional shorts program would normally be curated down from two hours to just the best of the bunch. While proudly provocative, 9/11 imagery replicated on a jiggling pair of breasts and a borderline PSA about real-life death in Mexico each feel ill-suited in their own way.
Even at thirty seconds a piece, 26 shorts would feel, fittingly, like overkill. “The ABCs of Death” has no shortage of inventive, ironic and gruesome sketches, but the novelty of its successes just barely outweighs its stillborn stuff.