Following on from a long tradition of portmanteau horror films from the classic Dead of Night (1945) to the more recent V/H/S films, The ABCs of Death (2012) delivers twenty-six individual segments, each related to violent death. With the loosest of briefs and complete artistic freedom, each director was bound only by the need to use a word beginning with their assigned letter of the alphabet to create the kind of ABC primer a child might have had . The talent on display is impressive, with the involvement of Brits Ben Wheatley and Simon Rumley, as well as many from the international horror cinema community.
The film kicks off with A for Apocalypse, a darkly witty piece from Nacho Vigalondo about a bedbound man fending off attacks from his primary carer. The tone is effectively set for the rest of the film. Although stylistically an inevitable hodgepodge of skittish horror, almost all the pieces plump a little too easily for a kind of gory, gross out comedy and few, if any, of the individual segments are actually frightening as such. Some of them are just simply repulsive, the ones which attempt social commentary are dumbfounding for their superficiality and the most genuinely horrific entries are those which are horrifically unfunny: the F for Fart section being a particularly weak moment – and not, unfortunately, the only one.
Given the diversity of international talent on board – many of the sections are subtitled and the settings are pleasing varied – it’s almost depressing how similar some of the entries feel. Also some of the contributors clearly couldn’t be bothered. Adam Wingard’s Q for Quack has the feel of something knocked off on a weekend after a five minute brainstorming session. The occasional dud, or half-hearted semi-thought, would be supportable if the good ones were actually that good, but Ben Wheatley’s U for Unearthed feels like a well turned technical exercise, and that one is one of the best.
The larger problem with The ABCs of Death might be that the framing concept itself is so weak. Although horror lends itself to short form – think of the short stories of H.P Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe – with twenty-six segments to be jammed into a two-hour movie, even bite sized delights can becoming indigestible when there are so many of them. The alphabet has never seemed so long.