The ABCs of Death 2 (Various Directors, 2014)

A scene from Bill Plympton's segment,  H is for Head Games  in  The ABCs of Death 2  {Photo: MAGNET RELEASES}

A scene from Bill Plympton's segment, H is for Head Games in The ABCs of Death 2 {Photo: MAGNET RELEASES}

Horror films, the good ones at least, resonate for their ability to address the tumultuous cultural landscape of their times. Consider Vietnam and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the climate of a film like Rosemary’s Baby in anticipation of Roe v. Wade. Contemporary horror films, particularly those of the anthology sort like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, address the cultural phenomenon of a YouTube generation: thrills designed for bite-size consumption. Moreover, an artist needs nothing more than an iPhone to tell a story. The cautions of technological advancement and our consumption of media are worthy topics of discussion, but so far, few films have really been able to address these concerns in a clearheaded way – no horror film comes close to anticipating these concerns quite like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. And that came out over 30 years ago.

With The ABCs of Death 2 failing to really connect on a cerebral level, these short films largely aim to please, reflecting a sensibility more concerned with generating humor rather than fright. Most aren’t particularly good, though there are some diamonds in the rough.

Amateur (Evan Katz) 
Evan Katz – of Cheap Thrills ­­fame – deconstructs just how efficient an assassin might be when confronted with the dingy reality of poor ventilation and tight spaces. It’s a good idea for a short, though sloppily executed. Kinda like Cheap Thrills.

Badger (Julian Barratt)
In this documentary-style film we see a group of environmental investigators probe the outskirts of a nuclear power plant, taking particular note of the destruction of the local badger population. Little do they know that these badgers
have mutated into vicious killing machines. It’s a humorous exercise, less Chernobyl and more akin to the three-eyed fish that populate Springfield’s nuclear power plant in The Simpsons.

Capital Punishment (Julian Gilbey)
Too short to be really consequential, though it does have the striking imagery of a failed beheading. Whereas most of the films in this anthology are content with expressing their ideas in the simplest way possible, this short is much more packed with ideas, though most unrealized. Noteworthy.

Deloused (Robert Morgan)
This was genuinely creepy. It sort of plays like those early 90s Tool music videos, though with a much brighter visual palette. Given the time constraints, Morgan opts for a generally abstract take on body horror. He succeeds.

Equilibrium (Alejandro Brugues)
Ah, and I thought we were getting on track. Two guys
 "bro down" on an island, only for a girl to get in between them. Murder ensues. Stupid, misogynistic and just ugly to look at – terrible.

Falling (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado)
Directors of the commendable Big Bad Wolves produce this simple exercise of a parachuted woman stuck in a tree and a young man reluctantly saving her. The politics of the film are too vague and ultimately the film is constructed too haphazardly to be really effective, but there’s a nugget of an idea here.

Grandad (Jim Hosking)
Hosking’s career is in nothing but shorts, so it makes sense that this feels the most compact and uses its time most effectively of the films in this anthology so far. Though honestly, it doesn’t really fit in besides being a funny exercise in generational divide. The sight of an old man’s junk is about as freighting as this gets – reinforcing that this compilation is a bit more concerned with humor over horror. 

Head Games (Bill Plympton)
Plympton does his usual shtick, though thankfully I have not tired of it yet.  The visually arresting imagery of men and women going head to literal head is a nice companion piece to my recent viewing of
 Force Majeure. Plympton’s sensibilities have always been better executed in the arena of short films – his mastery is clear from the outset. Recommended

Invincible (Erik Matti)
Silly and gross, though not without some merit. This tells the story of a family murdering their decrepit grandmother for her inheritance, only to realize that the effort will likely take a bit more finesse. Make-up and the general gross-out factor is high, but it’s a pretty visually unappealing exercise.

Jesus (Dennison Ramalho)
Oh jeez. It’s hard to treat religiosity within this time frame without resorting to extremism, and well, that’s what we get. Ramalho is more visually assertive than some of his colleagues, but the whole experiment is a one-note condemnation of spirituality. Blegh.

Knell (Kristina Buozyte & Bruno Samper)
There’s a great visual here of a young woman witnessing a murder, the window pane serving as a frame. Then the camera expands and sees that everyone in that adjacent apartment building is murdering someone. They are all looking back at the woman as she stands on her balcony. That right there is horror.

Legacy (Lancelot Imasuen)
I don’t even know where to begin with this. It’s specific to a cultural worldview (Nigeria), but that doesn’t make it any less terrible.

Masticate (Robert Boocheck)
A good joke’s all in the delivery of its punchline and well, this is one hell of a joke. A conked out zombie terrorizes people along a shopping strip, realized in slow motion and saturated colors. Brace yourself for the last scene.

Nexus (Larry Fessenden)
In this intertwined network narrative, character converge on a single site on Halloween. It would’ve been interesting if the film wasn’t so consciously uniting its threads. Ultimately, this aims for profundity and comes across as amateurish.

Ochlocracy (Hajime Ohata)
I mentioned in a review for
 Life After Beth that the zombie bubble has burst. I’ll revise this statement to in say that the American zombie bubble has burst – there’s certainly room for a more global take on the classically American horror trope. Ohata’s short in particular, detailing a woman’s trial for murdering zombies, is just the sort of tightly wound social allegory that makes Night of the Living Dead so important. Recommended

P is for PPPPP Scary! (Todd Rohal)
So absurd that you begin to question what kind of subversive terrain Todd Rohal is covering. Partly an homage to The Three Stooges and something completely out of any frame of reference, this is a short that trades in the surprise of seeing something new, even as it doesn’t especially enlighten.

Questionnaire (Rodney Ascher)
Be leery of coming across as too smart as you run the risk of  having your brain removed. It ends at the moment where it could’ve been the most interesting, essentially building up to next year’s G is for Gorilla. Or something like that.

Roulette (Marvin Kren)
Certainly one of the worst of the bunch, this features an elaborate setup for something a roulette match that we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Split (Juan Martinez Moreno)
A DePalma-esque split-screen exercise that feels less like a short film and more like a prologue to what could be a feature film. There’s definitely something here and one of the handful of shorts that could conceivably be expanded to feature length. The ending in particular opens doors to a full-fledged narrative – but it’s too undercooked as a short. 

Torture Porn (Jen and Sylvia Soska)
And now we enter the realm of serious film criticism: I cannot remember anything about this film.

Utopia (Vincenzo Natali)
Splice was memorable if not entirely fulfilling, which might suggest that Natali might be able to work better within a more limited confined time-crunch. The condensed time frame doesn’t do him any favors in this visage of models getting rid of their single defect. In theory there might be something here, but like so many of the films in this anthology, the execution is way off. 

Vacation (Jerome Sable)
Not especially good, but definitely the most timely. The film details a cheating spouse getting his comeuppance over a Facetime exchange. This is an ideal convergence of thematic device and content, and leaves you with a solid ending to fall back on. Short, gruesome, and memorable. Noteworthy

Wish (Steven Kostanski)
The sweaty fanboy gloss of this one can be felt immediately, in which a couple of kids are teleported into a He-Man-esque toy commercial, only for things to go
 terribly wrong. Funny in spirit, but it’s been done in a more humorous and effective way in Gentlemen Broncos.

Xylophone (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo)
A rare occurrence where the filmmaking is stronger than the material on display, with Maury and Bustillo brandishing some stylistic flourishes that would otherwise be more compatible for a delicate script. I haven’t seen their film Inside, but this gives me a feeling that they may be very capable filmmakers. Noteworthy

Youth (Soichi Umezawa)
This is a hell of a debut. It depicts the childhood angst of a young girl who’s dealing with the strain of oppressing parents. This flight of fantasy is infinitely more interesting than the similar minded Wish, if only because the concerns here are genuine and well, real. Recommended

Zygote (Chris Nash)
Ending on a strong note, Chris Nash’s
 Zygote details the life of a pregnant mother who manages to hold off giving birth for 17 years It’s a bloody and gruesome display of body horror and while it may not be the best in show, it’s a great choice to close. Recommended.