At the opening night of this year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, “The ABCs of Death 2” had its big, blood-soaked premiere. This isn’t much of a surprise, given the connection between the anthology film and the festival (both are the product of the warped imagination of Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League). And it wasn’t exactly a shocker when it turned out that only a handful of the segments of ‘ABCs,’ which follows the exact format of the predecessor (a micro-sized short for every letter of the alphabet, all obsessed with death), are watchable in any significant way. So we’ve decided to save you some time and energy (watching the entire movie is exhausting) and will run down the five best segments of “ABCs of Death 2,” so when it pops up on VOD, you’ll know which ones to watch.
It is worth noting that there are a pair of animated segments in this sequel, both of which are interesting if not exactly enjoyable. “D for Deloused” by Robert Morgan is a nightmarish, herky-jerky stop motion short about a killer spider that causes people to regenerate (or something); this short is more atmospheric than the other 25 (not that narrative clarity is the strongest suit in these viscera-drenched vignettes), while the other, master animator Bill Plympton’s “H for Head Games” is genuinely moving and odd. But neither made enough of an impression to crack the top five.
Also, it’s disappointing that, just like the similar “V/H/S” series (the third of which, incidentally, will be playing Fantastic Fest), when young and up-and-coming filmmakers are given a brief window of time and complete creative freedom, they fall back on hoary clichés and incredibly offensive misogyny and homophobia (one of the segments that would have made the top 5 list features both). It would be nice if these shorts displayed a more forward-thinking mentality instead of being ugly for ugliness’ sake.
“F for Falling“
“The ABCs of Death 2” feels much more international and this segment, about a Jewish female soldier who parachutes out of her damaged plane and winds up in Arab territory, is one of the sequel’s most haunting and memorable. Directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, who were responsible for the brilliant Israeli thriller “Big Bad Wolves,” it adds subtlety and nuance to a whole that feels most of the time like someone yelling in your face while flinging fake blood. The gore is minimal (but still there), instead focusing on palpable, sustained dread and suitably thorny moral implications. Instead of ending on a huge “gotcha!” moment, the directors instead exit on a note of deeply existential worry. Sometimes it’s not about shock.
“K for Knell“
Weird and awesome, “K for Knell,” directed by Lithuanian filmmakers Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper (whose film “Vanishing Waves” swept Fantastic Fest in 2012), has a kind of baroque grandness that most of the other shorts in the compilation lacked. A young girl in a ramshackle high rise watches as an extraterrestrial force, personified by a constantly mutating sphere of black goo, overtakes a nearby apartment building. The girl watches as people in the building start to transform. It’s eerie and harkens back to the days of classic, paranoid science fiction. When the goo starts to head towards her building, it’s a question of how long she can hold out before becoming its next victim.
“M for Masticate“
What’s so strange about most of these shorts, given the time and budget constraints, is that they rarely settle on a single stylistic idea or conceit and run with it. This is not the case with “M for Masticate,” directed by music video director Robert Boocheck and easily one of the more pure exercises in the anthology. The film basically consists of a single image/idea: a man, seemingly crazed and bloodthirsty (you don’t find out what happen to him until the final moments of the film) runs down the street, beating up and biting various pedestrians. The entire tableau is captured, via the magic of the Phantom digital camera, in super slow motion. It’s hypnotic and fun in a way that few of the more overtly “scary” installments are. Boocheck has been working on various feature film projects; hopefully, this will cement his reputation.
“Q for Questionnaire“
A lot of folks like “W for Wish,” which turns an ’80s toy commercial into a phantasmagorical nightmare, but when it comes to the goofier installments of “ABCs of Death 2,” we preferred “Q for Questionnaire” by “Room 237” director Rodney Ascher. The segment is structured around a man taking a survey (somewhere between an aptitude test and a Scientology quiz) and has a lovely punch line that could have been borrowed from a garishly illustrated ’50s EC comic (It also is worth mentioning that the twinkly yet menacing music in this segment is amazing). When we ran into Ascher afterwards, he told us that the structure and sound design in this short if inspired by Steven Soderbergh‘s “Solaris,” which is pretty cool.
“R for Roulette“
There are a few reasons we lost our mind for “R for Roulette,” by “Blood Glacier” director Marvin Kren. First, it’s a period piece, created in a way that we really feel like the filmmakers were trying to achieve authenticity, not just evoking a setting for cheap kitsch value. Secondly, it revolves around a game of Russian Roulette, played by some German soldiers, which is unbearably tense in and of itself. And then, there’s the kicker —maybe the game of Russian Roulette isn’t the scariest thing these soldiers are facing. After all, they’re playing in a basement… and something seems to be trying to get through those doors. Heartbreaking and deeply odd, this was one of the more affecting sections of the anthology and, as ‘the ABCs’ dragged on, one of the last bright spots.