Given the sad history of film censorship dating back to the inception of the medium, it's something of an event when filmmakers are given complete control over their creative vision. And considering that horror is a genre known for pushing boundaries, it's especially interesting to see what emerges from the minds of the unshackled nightmare makers. That's precisely what happens in The ABCs of Death, and though the results run the gamut from passably entertaining to positively jaw-dropping, one thing is for certain -- the sheer insanity of these shorts builds to such an insane fever pitch that you'll have a hard time looking away from the screen (unless, of course, you're shielding your eyes to avoid puking up your popcorn).
The concept is simple -- 26 filmmakers are given a letter of the alphabet, and tasked with choosing a word based on that letter. Using that word as the basis for a short film exploring the topic of death, they are granted a modest budget, and cut loose to create their vision. With participants including Srdjan Spasojevic (A Serbian Film), Ti West (The House of the Devil), Christopher Smith (Black Death), Ben Wheatley (Kill List), Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun) and Adam Wingard (You're Next), we're treated to everything from elaborate gross-out gags to gruesome mind-benders, shocking creature features, surreal experiments, extreme exercises in black comedy, and, in the case of Xavier Gens' "X Is for XXL," social commentary that is, quite literally, cutting.
Director Nacho Vigalondo kicks off the whole affair with "A Is for Apocalypse," a blistering exercise in Grand Guignol humor that's followed by a pair of forgettable duds before Marcel Sarmiento delivers a knock-out sucker punch with "D Is for Dogfight." A clever revenge tale that's virtually dialogue-free and features some of the most stunning cinematography of the entire set, it tells the story of an underground fighter pitted in a grim inter-species boxing match against man's best friend. Not only does Sarmiento pull off the impressive feat of staging a frighteningly realistic dog attack in this mini-masterpiece of the genre, but he also manages to infuse a dash of dark humor courtesy of a grimy little toddler, and tops it off with a satisfying twist. It's a hard act to follow despite Angela Bettis' best efforts in "E Is for Exterminate" (one that will have arachnophobes wearing earplugs to bed), Thomas Cappelen Malling's cartoonish "H Is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion", and Yudai Yamaguchi's grotesquely hilarious "J Is for Jidai-geki." Those highlights keep the energy up until Timo Tjahjanto's "L Is for Libido" takes things in a truly transgressive direction that's bound to put off some viewers. Ti West's subsequent "M Is for Miscarriage" only offers further proof that he may be one of the most overrated names in contemporary horror, but Banjong Pisanthanakun helps to lighten the mood considerably with "N Is for Nuptials" before Amer co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani deliver the other most visually impressive segment in "O Is for Orgazm," a colorful exercise in eroticism that recalls one of the most memorable scenes from their striking feature debut.
It's around this stage that the anthology hits its second biggest lull from letters "P" to "S" (with the possible exceptions of Adam Wingard's playfully meta "Q Is for Quack" and Lee Hardcastle's crude Claymation "T Is for Toilet"). By putting the audience in the position of a vampire being chased through a dark forest in the first-person "U Is for Unearthed," Kill List director Ben Wheatley gives the run toward "Z" a much-needed boost of adrenaline that culminates in one of the most memorable onscreen decapitations ever, and Kaare Andrews makes the most of his budget with the incredibly dark, speculative sci-fi effort "V Is for Vagitus." Not only does he create an impressive future dystopia that's entirely believable, but he also manages to stage one hell of a shootout as he pushes us to think about the very real issue of global overpopulation, and the frightening measures the government could take to address the issue. It will likely come as no surprise to fans of The Venture Bros. and Metalocalypse that Jon Schnepp's "W Is for WTF?" may cause brain swelling due to its breakneck absurdity, and though Gens' aforementioned "X Is for XXL" offers a repulsive reflection of negative self image in a society obsessed with airbrushed beauty, Jason Eisener's audacious "Y Is for Youngbuck" and Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z Is for Zetsumetsu" are both so indescribably demented that you'll swear you can smell your synapses burning as the credits start to roll.
Even in the case of the occasional misfire (Andrew Traucki's "G Is for Gravity") or the entry that doesn't come off as clever as intended (Jake West's "S Is for Speed"), it's hard not to admire the dedication and creativity displayed by the directors behind them. After all, if you walked into a 26-film horror anthology expecting any kind of consistency, you deserve the disappointment you're bound to find here, and then some. As with the genre in general, The ABCs of Death offers a wealth of mediocre thrills and chills punctuated by the rare classic. So even if you're incapable of focusing on the positive, there's always the fast-forward button.