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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Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.