The ABCs of Death, an anthology of 26 short films about people being killed in spectacularly gruesome, farcical, and universally disgusting ways, is scary in a way its makers may not have anticipated: it shows how deeply uninspired and visionless horror-movie filmmaking has become.
Ever since the genre stopped caring about bottling the sensation of fear in favor of shock and gore, it’s gotten away from true horror, a format that works best when deeply invested in the psychology of fear. Movies like the Saw franchise and its various torture-porn imitators have become less and less interested in messing with their audience’s brains than moving the goalpost of the grotesque ever further, an objective that ensures obsolescence. There are only so many severed limbs and plucked eyeballs you can see before you’re irrevocably desensitized. What haven’t we seen that could still shock us? The list of possibilities grows smaller and smaller. Tom Six actually managed to horrify us in a whole new way with The Human Centipede, but even that nightmare concept became commercialized, sequelized, and stale.
Twenty-seven directors, all supposedly luminaries in the horror movie world, were brought in to film two-to-four minute segments for The ABCs of Death, in an attempt to show the diversity the genre still posseses. Sadly, rather than expand the parameters of horror, these twenty-seven filmmakers mostly converge on the same tropes. There are three conditions for each short: they must begin and end on an image of red (guaranteeing that at least half of the shorts begin and end with a shot of blood), there must be one death, and they must correspond to a letter of the alphabet — meaning we get titles like “F is for Fart,” “L is for Libido,” and “W is for WTF.” That ensures the audience will experience acute B for Boredom on account of L for Laziness.
Anyone who’s made short films can tell you that cinematic storytelling in under 10 minutes tends toward heightened emotions, with narrative twists that seek to compress a feature’s worth of sensation into a tiny window. Add a requisite horror element and you get a succession of Jack in the Box effects. “D is for Dogfight” is transgressive, I suppose, in its depiction of a man graphically biting a dog, but it's diminished because, in the end, that short is entirely about how transgressive it is. And most of these films are just wafer-thin hooks for startling images. The opening salvo of a segment, “A is for Apocalypse,” about a wife taking care of her bedridden husband who reaches a drastic decision regarding his care, should play like a more gruesome version of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Instead it is robbed of any resonance because director Nacho Vigolondo provides no context to the couple's relationship.
However, the filmmakers here who successfully answer the question “What can still scare us?” locate that answer where great artists before them did: in real-world fears. Eli Roth’s Hostel movies stand as credible horror unlike the Saw flicks because they tap a uniquely insular (and uniquely American) fear of the rest of the world beyond the United States. In The ABCs of Death Hobo with a Shotgun auteur Jason Eisener does just that in “Y is for Youngbuck,” which translates a very real fear of childhood sexual abuse into cathartic revenge.
Similarly Simon Rumley’s “Pressure” taps a mother’s uncertainty about how to provide for her children, and shows just how far she is willing to go to support them. Lee Hardcastle’s “T is for Toilet” finds horror in what used to be an old standby in the heyday of Polanski: plumbing, and its function of keeping us blissfully unaware of where excrement goes. Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers), possibly the most original American horror maestro of the last decade, dives deep into the realm of body horror with “M is for Miscarriage,” as do Amer masterminds Bruno Forzani and Héléne Cattet with the ode to David Cronenberg “O is for Orgasm.”
These shorts are the ones that actually get inside our heads. If our brains are our biggest erogenous zone, so is it also the nexus of our fears. Not our stomachs, nor our adrenal glands. That’s why you need story to fuel and contextualize the greatest scares. Without story giving context to sex, you’ve got YouPorn. Without story giving context to horror, you’ve got much of The ABCs of Death.
What did you think of the film? Let Christian Blauvelt know on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films]
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Over the last few years, superhero films have transformed from niche novelties to a box office powerhouse genre all to themselves. Comic book publishers have become movie studios and hurl boatloads of cash into adapting property after property. Batman, Superman, The X-Men, and Iron Man are all now major cinematic franchises. The landscape of superhero cinema has completely shifted so that it has become rare to find one made on a shoestring budget.
Luckily, Netflix’s Watch Instantly service is offering you the chance to see not only a low-budget Chilean superhero flick, but also one that is damn good to boot. We hope you’ll consider check out Mirageman.
Who Made It: Mirageman was directed by Ernesto Diaz Espinoza. Espinoza is a guy who just flat out gets genre films. He loves them with an earnest, unbridled passion and there is no niche within which he can’t work…and excel. He tackled superheroes with Mirageman, fantasy warriors with Kiltro, and '70s era spies with Mandrill. Mirageman netted Ernesto an Audience Award for Best Film during 2007’s Fantastic Fest here in Austin.
Who’s In It: The star of the film is a martial arts wizard named Marko Zaror. Zaror earns his distinction as a wizard with every mystifyingly acrobatic kick and flip. His punches land with such blistering speed that you may find yourself rewinding certain scenes and playing them back in slow motion just to identify the exact moment of connection. Marko began his career serving as a stunt double for none other than The Rock in The Rundown. Zaror has collaborated with director Ernesto Diaz Espinoza on each of the three aforementioned genre films (Mirageman, Kiltro, and Mandrill); starring and serving as fight choreographer.
What’s It About: Mirageman is the story of a pair of brothers whose parents are brutally murdered right before their eyes. Years later, the older brother, a skilled martial artist, is working as a bouncer in a nightclub while the younger brother, having never fully recovered from the shock, is institutionalized and nearly catatonic. The older brother (Zaror) fed up with the crime in his city, the criminality that took his parents, decides to do something about it. He patrols the streets at night looking for ways to help when he stumbles across, and foils, an attempted rape. The woman turns out to be a news reporter and spreads the word about this amazing hero. Soon, Mirageman (as he has come to call himself) is battling criminal elements all over the city.
Why You Should Watch It:
Imagine if when Batman began, he did so with absolutely no money. Mirageman is the story of a man who has all of the drive, and all of the physical talents, necessary to take a stand against villainy with absolutely no financial resources to fall back on. It perfectly parallels the limitations faced by Diaz Espinoza as he made this film. But what Mirageman lacks in financial backing, it makes up for in stellar fight sequences and a tremendous amount of heart.
Mirageman, for all his proficiency in hand-to-hand combat, has no idea how to be a superhero. He can hold his own against even the strongest human adversary but consistently loses battles with simple logistics. Case in point, the first time he changes into his costume to tangle with a group of muggers, he returns to find his street clothes stolen and must ride home dressed as his superhero alter ego. But this is not a character that is meant to be mocked as a buffoon, and we embrace his mistakes because of the real reason he risks his life night after night battling crime. His hospitalized brother begins to show marked improvement while observing the exploits of Mirageman on the news. It is so sweet and uplifting to watch the boy cheer on his hero, unbeknownst to him to be his own brother, and it is here that the movie solidifies its powerful emotional core.
Again despite its low budget, and again thanks to Marko Zaror, Mirageman has some unbelievable fight sequences. As you watch him take baddies apart, you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that the punches that land are staged. Zaror strikes with such speed and brutal impact that you’ll be raucously cheering the knockout of every single foe. Look for his signature move: the double flip spin kick. I tell you to look for it because if you dare to blink, you may miss it.