I honestly had high hopes for this film. I thought with names like West, Wheatly, Spasojevic (yes I appreciate him), Gens, Eisner, Iguchi, and Sarmiento (my favorite segment) that there was no way that this was going to be a bore. Well, it wasn’t a bore…exactly.
Seeing as they usually consist of varying-in-quality of short made my varying-in-talent directors, anthology films can be a little difficult to review. Reviews usually come down to “some segments were better than others,” or “whether it’s worth sitting through the two bad segments to get to the good one is a matter of opinion.” That is hard enough with the usual anthologies, which on most occasions have no more than 4 or 5 segments, so reviewing a film like The ABCs of Death, whish is made up of 26 short films made by 26 different directors, feels like an impossibility. I am not going to break down all 26 shorts. If that is what you are looking for I sugguest you look for a writer with a little more time on his hands.
The serious problem with the ABCs concept is that is all there is. Concept and very little film. Also, there are a lot of letters in the alphabet. Asking an audience to sit through 26 independent, unconnected short films is a Herculean task that most people will not have the concentration for.
More than once during the 130 minute running time the film flirts with the attention defecit in all of us. Being introduced to 26 ideas, all of them so stylistically and thematically different, leads to a frenetic and befuddled state of sensory overload. What results is what feels like a Clockwork Orange style sensory film meant to appeal to the base, chemical part of our brain. All stimuli and no context. Unlike the Clockwork Orange scenario, though, this film isn’t aimed to rehabilitate us into a new, functional citizen.
Strangely, this frenetic, stylized approach to the shorts within The ABCs of Death is also what makes it so interesting. The differing styles, mediums, and ideas that present themselves on screen may not fit together, but, at their best, do exhilarate and intrigue. As an exercise in film history, ranging from claymation samurai films, and everything in-between, ABCs works just as well as most film school intro courses. In a very short period, the audience is introduced and initiated into so many styles and genres that one can’t help but be impressed by the gumption of the film.
That gumption though is what causes this to mostly fail as a film. As individual exercises there are very impressive things happening in The ABCs of Death, but as a contained title is has very little holding it all together. And, as with most anthologies, there are ebbs and flows of success. There are
are standouts, the mediocre and the downright bad, all mixed up and thrown and the viewer. Combine that usual pitfall with the extreme number of entries and you get a very mixed bag of a film.
Within that mixed bag there are only two wasy to look at this anthology. As an exersize in form and as a standalone film. The amount the viewer enjoys this film really depends on with road they take. As an exercise in technique and form there is no question that The ABCs of Death is a success. To see 26 talented (and some not so talented) filmmakers spread their genre loving wings in this context is pretty impressive. To look at this as a film, however, as a two hour piece of narrative entertainment the success is more muddled. The ABCs of Death never really stops being interesting, but it does manage to stop being entertaining.
If you are a fan of genre films and aren’t looking to be constantly entertained for two hours, I reccomend checking this one out. If you are just looking for a cool anthology film to watch check out my top ten list of anthologies. You can do a lot better.