Monday, November 02, 2015
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: The ABCs of Death
Beware the anthology (or portmanteau) film. Two problems dog the format: weak or contrived framing device, and inconsistency across its stories. The only anthology film I’ve seen that avoids these problems – that is, in fact, an out-and-out work of art – is Masaki Kobayashi’s ‘Kwaidan’; that all four of the tales it comprises were realised by one director is a good indication of why it succeeds where others fail. Even the Ealing Studios classic ‘Dead of Night’ takes a misstep with Charles Crichton’s over-egged segment about the rival golfers.
‘The ABCs of Death’ gets at least one thing right: it jettisons the necessity for a framing narrative. Instead it delivers, one after the other, 26 meditations on death, each by a different director. Some are subtitled, some are animated, some are black comedies, some are serious dramas, some are surreal, some predictable and others just downright fucking sick (I’m looking at you, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener and Yoshihiro Nishimura). To describe it as a mixed bag is being understated. To trot out the “too many cooks spoil the broth” cliché is both lazy and not quite accurate: given the degree of scatological obsession on display here, the cooks in question aren’t just spoiling the broth – a fair number of them are also taking a poo in it.
At least four segments take place in lavatories (the twentieth story is in fact called ‘T is for Toilet’), and only Ti West’s ‘M is for Miscarriage’ actually bothers to generate any real social horror from the setting. Elsewhere, Noboru Iguchi’s ‘F is for Fart’ tries to elevate flatulence and soft-core lesbianism to the level of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Bear in mind that Iguchi is the classy motherfucker who gave the world enema fetish porn videos before moving into the, ahem, mainstream with the likes of ‘The Machine Girl’, ‘RoboGeisha’ and ‘Zombie Ass’, and you’ll probably have some idea of how far short he falls.
Sex is predictably omnipresent. Banjong Pisanthanakun’s ‘N is for Nuptials’ is basically a shaggy dog story where an indiscreet mynah bird royally buggers up a marriage proposal. ’O is for Orgasm’ sees Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet serves the same pretentious mishmash of homages, arthouse obscurism and style-over-content that marred their tedious feature-length debut ‘Amer’ (itself a portmanteau outing that never adds up to the sum of its parts). ‘V is for Vagitus (The Cry of a Newborn Baby)’ strays from the horror genre in favour of a dystopian sci-fi mini-epic about patriarchal governments and reproduction. The most disturbing of this set is Tjahjanto’s ‘L is for Libido’, which starts out as a weird conflation of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Fight Club’ (had he been given another letter of the alphabet, Tjahjanto could just as easily have presented the piece as ‘W is for Wank’), peaks with the best visual pun on impotence I’ve seen, and would have been utterly brilliant if he’d faded to red at that point. As it, he plunges on into ‘Serbian Film’ territory and the last minute or so leaves a fetid taste in the mouth.
But not as bad a taste as Eisener leaves with ‘Y is for Youngblood’, a misjudged and leeringly unpleasant tale of a zombie deer taking revenge on the paedophile who coaxed a young boy into killing it. Conceptually, had the paedophile been less of a rubber-faced cliché and his actions been suggested rather than Eisener wallowing in them like a pig in a particularly odious patch of excrement, the material could have worked. This could – and should – have been a serious psychological drama (is the deer in the protagonist’s mind? is he being driven towards insanity or immolation by his own guilt?), but as anyone who’s seen Eisener’s ‘Treevenge’ or ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ will know, all he’s interested in is upping the ante on already well established genre tropes and grossing out his audience. He has no moral compass as a filmmaker, and probably no idea that life actually happens outside of a ribbon of celluloid running through a projector.
It’s a damn shame that so many problems plague ‘The ABCs of Death’, with the exception of ‘F is for Fart’ its first third establishes a fairly high standard. Nacho Vigalondo’s ‘A is for Apocalypse’ is the perfect opener for a portmanteau film: stylistically bold, disorientating and with a killer punchline; Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s ‘B is for Bigfoot’ quite simply owns the urban myth subgenre; Ernesto Diaz Espinoza’s ‘C is for Cycle’ comes on like a distilled version of Christopher Smith’s ‘Triangle’; Marcel Sarmiento’s provocative ‘D is for Dogfight’ is the film’s high point, a wordless dissertation on bloodsports, audience complicity and the death of innocence – hard to watch but never less than aesthetically valid, it shows up a lot of the later segments for the pabulum that they are; Angela Bettis’s ‘E is for Exterminate’ uses mordant humour to document those tiny acts of cruelty (in this case the killing of a spider) that so many of us rationalise; and ‘G is for Gravity’ uses the first-person POV to chilling effect in a dialogue-free description of a suicide.
Interesting that ‘Dogfight’ and ‘Gravity’ eschew dialogue. Ben Wheatley’s ‘U is for Unearthed’ – the film’s other genuine standout – uses the same technique (first person POV with so little dialogue as to be neglible) to capture the final moments of a fleeing vampire as it’s run to ground and staked. It’s a simple enough reversal of a done-to-death scene, but Wheatley gets the absolute maximum out of his couple of minutes.
There are one or two other offerings that are worthwhile – Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s black comedy ‘Q is for Quack’ and Srdan Spasojevic’s bizarre, hallucinatory and brilliantly imagistic ‘R is for Removed’ deserve honourable mentions – but overall the variance in quality control isn’t just obvious, it’s a deal-breaker for long stretches of the two hour plus running time, particularly in the final stretches where headfucks like Jon Schnepp’s ‘W is for WTF!’ and Nishimura’s ‘Z is for Zetsumetsu (Extinction)’ rub shoulders with Eisener’s stinker and Xavier Gens’s ‘XXL’, where all the viscera a bathtub can hold can’t make up for how tedious and predictable his treatment of the material is.
Even at a few minutes apiece, presenting 26 separate stories, in such wilfully divergent styles, as a single coherent movie was always going to prove something of a poisoned chalice. I’ve not seen ‘The ABCs of Death 2’, but I understand the producers attempted to even things out tonally by focusing on black comedy. Hmmm. Maybe it’ll crop up on Winter of Discontent, maybe it won’t.