Two years ago, Tim League, the founder of Austin’s cult film festival Fantastic Fest, and Ant Thompson, a New Zealand-based film producer, created an odd and ambitious project: an alphabetic horror anthology consisting of 26 parts, each from a different up-and-coming horror director. The result was “The ABCs of Death”, an interesting experiment that spanned continents and sub-genres. Like many subpar anthologies, it had its memorable moments, yet ultimately came off as uneven and tonally jarring, constantly unsure how to straddle the lines of comedy, drama, and shock.
Now, the two producers are at it again with their aptly titled follow up, “The ABCs of Death 2.”
Much like its predecessor, “The ABCs of Death 2” is a hodgepodge of different storytelling visions. The styles range from found-footage to claymation, and the subject matters include killer bugs, carnivorous hamburgers, and bath-salt crazed cannibals. However, unlike the original, this installment holds a strong sense of structure and progression. All the shorts are linked with a maniacally dark sense of humor, and there’s a clear sense that the grizzly impact and darker themes increase the further one gets into the collection.
The opening installment, “A is for Amateur”—the title of which concludes the narrative like a punchline—depicts a hit man trying to pull off the perfect assassination, only to realize that climbing through an air vent is far less practical and much more dangerous than it might seem. This is then followed by “B is for Badger,” which, as the name might suggest, is just a long setup for a nature documentarian (played by Julian Barratt of “The Mighty Boosh”) being eaten by mutated badgers. While these first two segments are certainly violent and morbid, they actually focus more on very dark slapstick humor than outright horror. It’s not until the bizarre installment, “D is for Deloused,” that the segments aim to be genuinely unsettling, culminating with the intensely disturbing conclusion “Z is for Zygote.”
A primary challenge for these directors is to prevent the two-hour-long collection of five-minute vignettes from becoming stale. Their solution is to deliver one sucker punch after another. It’s genuinely astonishing to watch how some of these directors construct a story within their time constraint. Probably the most memorable short is “S is for Split,” in which a husband talks to his wife over the phone, only for a masked killer to break into the house. The entire segment is done in split screen, first showing the husband attempting to reach the police as the wife attempts to hide, then adding a third segment into the frame to show the killer pursuing his victim. It’s an interesting tool that pays off with a masterful twist at the end.
A lot of these shorts do feel like shorter components of a much larger story, which can either be a benefit or a detriment. The “O” short introduces a genuinely fascinating premise and tells a concise story within what seems like a much larger world. In it, zombies have been cured of their affliction only to hold trials for the people who tried to shoot them in the head while they were in a less civilized state. Others, such as “L is for Legacy,” which deals with a botched tribal ritual summoning a strange demonic possum, tackle promising ideas but feel like they are cut short far too early.
It’s also worth a warning that as the film approaches its final stretch, its idea of a climax involves entering some very dark territories. The “X” and “Z” segments are particularly unsettling, crossing into gruesome vistas that some viewers might genuinely find problematic. It’s difficult to talk about the premises of these, but rest assured, you won’t be forgetting them for a while afterward.
The funny thing about the way “The ABCs of Death” films are structured, however, is that it’s actually not completely necessary to make it all the way to the end. Because of the movie’s length and the way it constantly throws so much at the viewer, this is something that might actually be preferable to watch in smaller increments. An inherent problem of the movie that’s also shared by previous horror anthologies, such as “V/H/S” and “Trick R Treat,” is that with so many short and shocking segments drenching the screen with monsters and gore, it’s easy to either get overwhelmed or just downright fatigued.
That’s why, rather than trying to tackle this all at once, I’d recommend watching these segments in bite-sized portions in the lead-up to Halloween. That way it’ll be easier to really appreciate the ways these different directors are trying to bring innovation to the horror genre. If nothing else, the constant barrage of grizzly laughs and creative scares should manage to bring on the spooky seasonal spirit.