Having been to dozens of film festival shorts programs I know just how excruciating they can be. This was my only reservation heading into Magnet’s The ABCs of Death, which premiered at the Midnight Madness portion of the Toronto International Film Festival. When the 2+hour “event” concluded, that’s when my brain really started to hurt. How the hell do I review this? Do I review it based on the overall experience, the ratio of good to bad shorts, or do I review each short individually? Ultimately, I feel that since it’s presented as a film experience, it should be reviewed as one.
The concept behind ABCs is brilliant: 26 directors were each given $5,000 (according to “Q is for Quack”) and had to deliver a short film about death. The result is an eclectic variety of horror that range from sex-fueled murder to rape revenge. It may sound delectable, but it’s not. It’s hard to know exactly where the problem festers, but I’d like to speculate that it was the intense creative freedom given to the directors. The overall problem is a lack of cohesion, meaning, there’s nothing to connect all of the shorts.* I wonder what kind of small guidelines may have been implemented that would have strung all 26 shorts together a little bit? I don’t blame the producers at Drafthouse (as the idea is brilliant), but nobody could have speculated what the final result of the experiment would feel like… It was tedious.
Part of the problem is that, like any other shorts program, a lot of the shorts weren’t very good. Furthermore, nobody could have guessed that most of the directors would take a dark and/or artistic path. The few comedic moments presented such a wonderful breath of fresh air in a 2-hour project jam-packed with intense depression. It’s even more frustrating that the producers were able to land such high caliber directors who mostly took the perspective of a film student – meaning, instead of really showing what they could do with $5k, they did only what they could with $5k (the bare minimum). That’s not much to work with, and the challenge is great, but the competition was fierce. Wouldn’t you want to show up the other directors? And while a few of the shorts went big, they still managed to bore; albeit, it’s HARD to tell a compelling story, without shocks, in under 5 minutes.
Even through the film’s best shorts – directed by Marcel Sarmiento, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, Jason Eisner and Ben Wheatley – the project just felt overtly long and fragmented. The problem reviewing such a film is that, while some of the shorts warranted a perfect score, others deserved much less. How to you fairly grade the entirety of a project that’s a quarter brilliant, a quarter OK, and half incredibly weak? I’d suggest you ignore the below rating (it’s undeniably misleading) and focus on creating some sort of party atmosphere to watch ABCs of Death. The only thing that can kick-start some energy into this anthology is you, and a group of screaming and laughing friends. There’s plenty here worth seeing.
*Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I produced V/H/S, another anthology released by Magnet. My opinions may be construed as biased.
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