Wednesday 2 December 2015

The ABCs of Death 2 (2015) DVD Review

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Amongst the recent upswing in anthology horror movies, we've had three V/H/S flicks (so far), and now we've got The ABCs of Death 2, which returns to the '26 Directors, 26 Ways to Die' formula that produced such a varied – and often downright bizarre – series of short films, where crazed invention ruled above all else. Naturally, with such varied films (and filmmakers), the results are mixed – read on for a run-down of the Hits, Misses, and OK inbetweeners. N.B. This is my personal take: film viewing is subjective, and your mileage with The ABCs of Death 2 may vary.

A is for “Amateur” (E.L. Katz):
Kicking things off in a high energy, music video style, the first of twenty-six shorts details the exploits of an assassin – but the perfect hit turns out to be a far more difficult (not to mention grubbier and more painful) affair than intended. Featuring Andy Nyman (Severance), this is a darkly comic treat. HIT.

B is for “Badger” (Julian Barratt):
A found footage style entry set during the recording of a nature documentary called “Toland's World”, with The Mighty Boosh's Julian Barratt as a preening Attenborough wannabe. A nearby nuclear power station seems to have killed off the local badger population – or has it? Typically British in its understated humour, but the jump scare fails to startle … good gore, though. OK.

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C is for “Capital Punishment” (Julian Gilbey):
A rural kangaroo court of snarling vigilantes condemn a man to death for the murder of Lucy Wilson … trouble is, he's innocent. Liberal use of blood and an impressive decapitation don't quite make up for a slightly underwhelming conclusion. OK.

D is for “Deloused” (Robert Morgan):
The first animated entry proves to be a decidedly strange, gruesome, confusing nightmare of a thing. The gooey, ghoulish models are well designed, but you don't have any real idea why these things are happening … however, as a result the film takes on a Raimi-meets-Lynch vibe. HIT.

E is for “Equilibrium” (Alejandro Brugu├ęs):
Two male castaways, almost caveman-like in their simplicity, are thrown into a bitter battle after a beautiful woman washes ashore. The passage of time – and the change in their lives – is seamlessly joined by a snazzy bit of camera work … one for any unlucky-in-love boys out there. OK.

F is for “Falling” (Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado):
An Israeli woman is trapped in her parachute which has got stuck in a tree in Palestinian territory, when along comes a young soldier to cut her down. The socio-political commentary on offer could do with some clarification, focus, and added bite, while the pay-off proves disappointing. MISS.

G is for “Grandad” (Jim Hosking):
A clash of the ages as a wretched young man with delusions of grandeur bemoans having to live with his grandfather. There's a nifty 'under the bed' gag, but this peculiar entry doesn't make an awful lot of sense when all is said and done, doing more to confuse than chill. MISS.

H is for “Head Games” (Bill Plympton):
More animation – drawn this time – focusing on the heads of a kissing couple. Love turns to war though – with machine gun eyeballs and flying saucer ears, and more – in a particularly weird, but rather inventive call to 'make love, not war'. HIT.

I is for “Invincible” (Erik Matti):
Greedy inheritors encourage – rather actively – their curiously resilient 120 year-old grandmother to finally kick the bucket. She takes an awful lot of convincing. Stylish and gruesome. HIT.

J is for “Jesus” (Dennison Ramalho):
One of the darkest entries in The ABCs of Death 2, in which the homophobic – and strictly religious – father of a gay son seeks to 'remove the demon inside' via torture. The way things play out – in a vengeful manner – make for a statement that could easily be misinterpreted, but (considering it made the cut), it's just in need of a little clarification. OK.

K is for “Knell” (Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper):
A swirling black orb in the sky sends the residents of a nearby tower block into a murderous frenzy, as witnessed through their windows from afar. Despite the strange and unclear ending, it's generally well executed. HIT.

L is for “Legacy” (Lancelot Imasuen):
An entry from Africa helps mix things up a bit, but the tale of a tribal sacrifice that fails to go ahead – resulting in a slightly ropey monster being unleashed – doesn't translate that well on-screen for the majority who are unlikely to be clued-up on African folklore (so the film seems to suggest, at least). Evidently a more DIY effort from up-and-comers, it's a commendable entry that ultimately needed more work. MISS.

M is for “Masticate” (Robert Boocheck):
Much like the first anthology, a letter was set aside for a competition – the winner of which would have their short featured in the final movie. Last time it was Lee Hardcastle's “T is for Toilet”, and this time the letter of choice for competing filmmakers was “M”. Stylishly shot in super slow motion and featuring a large, hairy, and wet man rampaging down an American street, it unfurls gradually and pays off in the closing moments. HIT.

N is for “Nexus” (Larry Fessenden):
Halloween in New York – will you be my Valenstine? The Monster and The Bride want to hook up, but a coming-together of converging events brings about tragedy. OK.

O is for “Ochlocracy” (Hajime Ohata):
Meaning “mob rule”, this spin on the tried-and-true zombie genre is one of the main highlights of The ABCs of Death 2. A woman is put on trial – by the un-undead, who have been cured by the 'Z-cu' vaccine – for her crimes, namely killing zombies as she frantically tried to survive. Excellent make-up work, a nifty idea, and spot-on execution. HIT.

P is for “P-P-P-P-Scary” (Todd Rohal):
Surely there's plenty of titles/subjects that could have been picked for the letter “P” without having to bend the rules? An odd, silent film-ish entry that features a trio of stammering Laurel & Hardy-like criminals (with striped overalls and exaggerated noses) creeping through the sepia-toned darkness. They encounter someone in the murk, in what becomes just plain silly rather than surreal. MISS.

Q is for “Questionnaire” (Rodney Ascher):
An intelligence test leads to an unnecessarily brutal brain transplant. It doesn't make much – if any – sense, and feels sorely under-written. MISS.

R is for “Roulette” (Marvin Kren):
Another stand-out entry here as a trio of German party-goers in the 1930s/40s play a game of Russian Roulette. There is one bullet in the chamber and the tension is palpable. The tale unfolds perfectly as the truth of the situation is revealed. HIT.

S is for “Split” (Juan Martinez Moreno):
Another one of the very best shorts featured in this anthology. A phone call home – played out in split screen – turns nasty when an intruder invades a married man's home. The sting in the tail is deliciously twisted. HIT.

T is for “Torture Porn” (Jen & Sylvia Soska):
The Soska sisters (American Mary) bring their devilish brand of sexual politics to the fore, as a shy girl – with incredible blue eyes – is interviewed on-camera by a trio of misogynists who also happen to be producers of mucky movies. Conor Sweeney of Astron-6 plays the lead scumbag who'll wish they'd cast another girl in their smut flick. HIT.

U is for “Utopia” (Vincenzo Natali):
More of a sci-fi entry than horror, this glossy short features a world populated by the beautiful people, who encounter a 'sub-norm'. A satire on ultra-consumerism and its vapid slaves. HIT.

V is for “Vacation” (Jerome Sable):
A skewering of the culture of disrespectful Western holidaymakers charging about Thailand for cheap sex is told via a Skype call. There's the odd bit of dodgy dialogue (“are those hard drugs?”), but the bloody climax chills. HIT.

W is for “Wish” (Steven Kostanski):
My personal favourite out of all twenty-six shorts. From the director of Manborg, a couple of kids – in what starts out as a toy commercial – wish they could travel into the world of their favourite play set. Turns out the He-Man alike universe – in which a bloodthirsty war rages – is the last place any gung-ho kid would ever want to be. Considering Kostanski's ability to turn very little money into an awful lot of impressively designed on-screen mayhem, it's no surprise that this is the most visually stunning entry in the anthology. Frankly, it puts some of the cheaper efforts to shame. Featuring a cameo by Jen & Sylvia Soska, a vast world is laid out before the viewer, with a gleeful amount of gloopy gore and practical effects (puppets, stop-motion animation) on offer. HIT.

X is for “Xylophone” (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustilo):
An evening of babysitting with granny turns spectacularly grim when the child's constant hammering at a xylophone sends her guardian over the edge. Very bloody, but its straight-forward nature suffers when coming right after W is for Wish. OK.

Y is for “Youth” (Soichi Umezawa):
A teenage girl fantasises about killing her neglectful, selfish, unloving parents. One of the stranger shorts in the collection, it also ends up being quite inventive (giant killer hamburger and projectile fries, anyone?), and – obviously – not a little bit bizarre. HIT.

Z is for “Zygote” (Chris Nash):
A rather dark tale in which a husband leaves his heavily pregnant wife at their remote home. He says he'll be back soon, but that she should eat a particular type of root that will – with no explanation – delay the birth. Years later and still he hasn't returned, and the woman has ended up dragging around a thirteen year old (who talks!) in her womb. Insanely over-the-top when the grue starts flying, it makes for an especially twisted climax to the anthology, that is put on-screen with considerable skill. A Grimm fairytale for the gore film generation. HIT.

All said and done it's a case of 14 hits, 5 misses, and 7 OK inbetweeners (compared to the original film's tally of 17-3-6, in this reviewer's opinion), with the middle portion of the movie being the most uneven. Like last time, total artistic freedom was afforded to the directors, and much like last time there are some curious tonal shifts – e.g. the dark comedy of “Invincible” gives way to the graphic torture of “Jesus” – but it's just as gory, bizarre, and full-bore crazy as ever. There are fewer 'big names' attached here, but it will be interesting to see what becomes of some of these newbie/niche market helmers in the coming years.

This single disc DVD from Monster Pictures features a series of trailers as the only additional content, falling well short of the double-disc, featurette-packed treatment the first film received. Subjectively the quality of the films vary, but the visual and aural presentation of all are fairly consistent – but certain entries do stand head and shoulders above the others – technically speaking though, the presentation is solid. Curiously, the back cover states a running time of 86 minutes – which is surprising, considering The ABCs of Death was 123 minutes long – but it is in fact a misprint. The ABCs of Death 2 clocks in at a slightly shorter 117 minutes (13 of which are opening and closing credits). Be sure to stick around for/fast forward to the very end of the credits for a Human Centipede-related cameo.

The selection of filmmakers is once again an international crop, and perhaps there has been a conscious decision to encourage some of the non-English entries to avoid dialogue if possible (did the amount of foreign-language entries up-front in the first film irk some viewers?). Sometimes scary, sometimes strange, and occasionally disappointing, fans of The ABCs of Death will know exactly what to expect. The sequel may not be quite as over-the-top or eye-popping as the original article, but it's well worth checking out. If you find you don't like the short you're watching, chances are that one you'll dig will be right around the corner. Naturally, opinions regarding which entries Hit and Miss will change from viewer to viewer – there's something for everyone here.

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