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rochefort [Celluloid 09.21.14] scifi horror

Drafthouse Films’ anthology feature “The ABC’s of Death” was an ambitious collection of shorts by 26 directors, each given full creative freedom to tell a quick story about, well, death, and the result was a fairly messy mix where the lows unfortunately outnumbered the highs. The follow-up has the same structure, this time with 26 new directors, and it’s a slightly better collection overall, but if you judge the quality of a movie by how many times you check your watch you might find this one as frustrating as its predecessor.

If you’ve seen the first installment, then you’re already familiar with how each story rolls out: one at a time, we’re treated to a quick segment dedicated to a single letter of the alphabet. There’s a smattering of sci-fi and action pieces throughout, but the majority of segments favor horror and the macabre, and quite a few of those tend to inject at least a dollop of comedy. Bodies are ripped apart, holes are blown through chests, heads are cut off, etc., and the quality ranges from occasionally brilliant to sometimes downright insulting.

High points in part 2 include E.L. Katz’s opening segment, a slick, initially misleading bit about an assassin who finds out that some hits don’t happen like they do in the movies. There’s a really clever zombie segment where the undead put the living on trial for their crimes of murder in the zombie apocalypse. Bill Plympton contributes another of his animated bits that starts off as a simple shot of two people kissing and devolves into (literal) head-to-head warfare. There’s a super-creepy stop-motion piece involving roaches and bloated bellies that really shouldn’t be viewed on a full stomach. And Vincenzo Natali’s “U is for Utopia” is a short, sharp spin on a familiar Twilight Zone-style premise about what happens to unattractive people in a pretty-person world.

But these are just a small percentage of the segments on offer, and a great many more faded from memory almost immediately. Some of the ones that unfortunately didn’t include “J is for Jesus”, a ham-fisted and even preachy bit that bludgeons viewers over the head with a tired and tacky message about homosexuality and hypocritical religious nuts. This segment, among quite a few others, is fairly indicative of the uphill battle that a collection like “ABC’s” faces. A single stinker can really take a toll, but several of them back to back can make two hours seem a whole lot longer. Hell, the first “V/H/S” movie wore us out with only five entries.

And it’s no secret that this is an anthology for a very specific kind of audience, one that has witnessed so many acts of simulated onscreen violence that the bar has to be considerably raised to get our pulses up even a notch, and I’m not just talking about the inventiveness of the kills. I consider myself to be part of that audience, and I get the feeling that this anthology has created for itself a bit of a Catch 22. This is a movie intended to appeal mainly to movie junkies and genre-hounds, and we can be a jaded and often micro-critical den of vipers; our expectations are already sky-high. Considering that each segment is typically less than five minutes (and let’s not forget that “full creative freedom” part), it’s not entirely unreasonable to expect quick shots of genius one after the other, but instead we’re often witnessing the growing pains of younger and less seasoned directors.

The ideal format for “The ABC’s of Death” is likely DVD and Blu-Ray. There’s a function on most Blu-Ray players that allows you to bookmark your favorite chapters, a function I’ve typically ignored, but these movies almost demand it for subsequent viewings. And for all my complaints and misgivings, it seems fair to expect that the next one will be better; just look at the improvements in the second “V/H/S” movie. As a showcase for lesser-known and neophyte directors, “The ABC’s of Death” series is still very much a welcome and eventually even vital shot in the arm, and so far seems like it’s going through its own share of growing pains. I’m still looking forward to the next one, and in a few years I bet we’ll get a “Best of” collection that blows our heads off. Hopefully not literally.

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