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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At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third and final installment in director Peter Jackson's fantasy epic trilogy, leads the nominations in the 2003 Online Film Critics Society awards with 11, including best picture, director and supporting actor for Sean Astin and Andy Serkis.
The Return of the King also received noms in the adapted screenplay, cinematography, original score, visual effects, art direction, costume design and sound categories.
Miramax's Kill Bill: Vol.1 wasn't far behind. The actioner garnered nods for best original screenplay, director for Quentin Tarantino and lead actress for Uma Thurman.
The other three best picture nominees are Lost in Translation, Mystic River and City of God, Brazil's foreign language submission for the 2002 Oscars.
Helmers Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (21 Grams) were nominated for director along with Jackson and Tarantino.
Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog) Paul Giamatti (American Splendor), Sean Penn (Mystic River) Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), were nominated in the actor competition.
Charlize Theron (Monster), Naomi Watts (21 Grams), Angela Bettis (May) and Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) join Thurman in the actress category.
Alec Baldwin (The Cooler), Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass) and Tim Robbins (Mystic River) join Astin and Serkis in the supporting actor category.
Supporting actress nominees are Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain), Maria Elana Bello (The Cooler), Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), Holly Hunter (Thirteen) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog).
Last year's OFCS awards gave Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers best picture and Jackson best director.
The Online Film Critics Society is a body of film journalists, scholars and historians whose work appears online. Winners in all 19 categories will be announced Jan. 5.
Psychiatric nurse Maggie O'Connor (Kim Basinger) raises her drug-addicted sister's baby who grows up to be a girl with "special" gifts like the ability to rock a dead bird back to life. When Cody turns 6 her mother returns to claim her. The trouble is mom is now married to Eric Stark (Rufus Sewell) leader of a Satanic cult masquerading as a self-help group. Stark wants Cody to use her powers for the "dark side " and will kill her if she refuses. Aunt Maggie enlists the aid of FBI agent John Travis (Jimmy Smits) to help her track down and save Cody.
Basinger 's passive bearing and scrubbed-down glamour seem out of place in the dingy New York settings. When Stark's snarling teenage-runaway groupies attack her they seem as angry at her smooth blond coif as anything else. Sewell does what he can with lines like "death would be a kinder fate" and "she will be ours" (this last line uttered while practically shaking his fist at the heavens). Vastly underused is Smits whose all-talk-and-no-action FBI agent wouldn't have lasted a day in "NYPD Blue's" precinct.
Although director Chuck Russell captures a rich textured look and lays on the ghoulish special effects (a river of red-eyed rats ominous whispers wraithlike demons) "Bless the Child" doesn't generate any real chill. It's not helped by the script which throws in every clich‚ possible about angels demons hellfire and brimstone. There's no avoiding comparison with "The Sixth Sense " the success of which surely must have put some heat under this project. Unfortunately it's a little too cooked.