Good short film anthologies are lovingly culled from disparate sources, so it's no surprise that the entries in this for-hire horror anthology — in which 25-odd international filmmakers were tapped to provide brief, cheap chillers pegged to a letter of the alphabet — are berserkly inconsistent. What's unexpected is how thoroughly The ABCs of Death's ample duds overshadow its treasures, and how uninspired it feels as a whole.
Blame a premise that's both feather-light and almost unworkably wide open, along with an apparent edict by producers and horror film festival impresarios Ant Timpson and Tim League to get boobs, gore, child endangerment, and colorectal high jinks into every segment. Schtick-meisters and would-be taboo-smashers fare the worst: Timo Tjahjanto's "L is for Libido" flubs its Salo-style shock parade by subbing winking exploitation for political context, while the nonsensical "Z is for Zetsumetsu" from Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) barely registers through its incoherence — even with the World Trade Center's destruction re-enacted on a pair of tattooed tits. One boob has the towers inked on it; the other boob has a jet. They jiggle, and destruction ensues.
Disappointingly, ABCs' parameters also stump a few directors who've impressed elsewhere. Adam Wingard (V/H/S and the upcoming You're Next) addresses his lack of inspiration head-on in "Q is for Quack," but the results aren't as funny as he seems to think, and "U is for Unearthed" comes off as something Ben Wheatley wisely cut out of his Kill List. The slackly revolting "Y is for Youngbuck" might make you hope that Hobo with a Shotgun's Jason Eisener never gets behind a camera again.
Some bits do stand out. These range from Marcel Sarmiento's "D is for Dogfight," a marvel of suggestion that's the movie's visual high point. Also worth catching are a feature-scale sci-fi mini-epic — Kaare Andrews' "V is for Vagitus" — featuring the great Michael Rogers (Beyond the Black Rainbow), A Serbian Film provocateur Srdjan Spasojevic's ambitious/pretentious movie-movie "R is for Removed," and the impressionistic "O is for Orgasm," in which Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet atone for their overstuffed Amer.
The handful of truly memorable entries both interrogate the genre and incorporate wider cultural concerns: Where Jorge Michel Grau's "I is for Ingrown" and Simon Rumley's "P is for Pressure" each flesh out the woman-in-jeopardy trope with details most fanboys would rather avoid, Ti West (The House of the Devil) literally dunks our faces in them. His entry is both the flimsiest and most critically derided so far, but it's also the only one that incorporates its title into the narrative payoff (which I won't give away). Finally, by striking the perfect balance between social-problem sketch and skeezy splatter flick in "X is for XXL," Xavier Gens (Frontier(s)) reminds us of what ABCs might have been.
Highlights and lowlights aside, the anthology is ultimately sunk by the entropy-inducing mass of forgettable installments in between. Again, this shouldn't surprise anyone, least of all horror-heads used to enduring a dozen mediocre movies on the off-chance of uncovering one that resonates past the snack bar. But experiencing that ratio in one sitting is too much to ask of an audience, especially when what you're offering barely aspires to B Is for Brainfart.