A few weeks ago, I got it into my head that I would be missing out on something by not watching the original THE ABCs OF DEATH before ABCs OF DEATH 2. I don’t really remember why; there were different writers, different directors, and very little chance of any continuity between the two films. Still, I did it, and I fell somewhat short of being impressed. Too many horror films – especially anthology collections – seem to demand applause simply for existing. I found “O for Orgasm” to be endlessly creative, and I consider it a great compliment that I had to watch “X for XXL” with my hands in front of my eyes, but for the most part, THE ABCs OF DEATH was a Fantastic Fest inside joke that meant nothing to me.
For the follow-up, I decided to get a little bit more technical. Each title was written down on a separate row of my notepad; next to the title was written a five word synopsis and a quick grade. As the film played, I would mark the title with a minus sign for anything that disappointed, a check mark for those that met expectations, and a star for any shorts that really impressed me. Why do minus-star instead of minus-plus sign?
I don’t know. Go develop your own grading system.
At any rate, this napkin math serves as a handy snapshot of the improved quality of ABCs OF DEATH 2. Six films received a minus sign, eight received a check mark, and twelve received a star. What impressed me most about the starred films were the diverse reasons why I liked them. I loved the creative modeling present in the stop-motion animation of “D for Deloused,” where the victim of a vicious cult is given a second chance at life; the world-building in “K is for Knell,” where a single shot shows madness sweeping a neighboring high-rise; the narrative perfection of “R is for Roulette,” where a group of people pass a revolver between them for an unknown reason; and the warped nostalgia of “W is for Wish,” where two young boys get pulled into the world of their favorite action figures. Even my reasons for disliking a short were diverse. One got dinged for its low production values, another for being too broad, and a third for being far too experimental for my tastes.
And this probably explains why ABCs OF DEATH 2 is such an improvement over its predecessor. A short film can be many different things, but it works best when it feels more like a self-contained story than the final project in a production class. Many of the shorts in THE ABCs OF DEATH demonstrated competency above creativity, acting as highly-polished segments of test footage that became demo reel fodder. In the ABCs OF DEATH 2, the writers and directors focused their attention on telling a complete story with as little information as possible. Take “Q is for Questionnaire.” Rodney Ascher – the director of 2012’s popular documentary ROOM 237 – parallels a young man’s innocent flirtation with a Scientology-esque evangelist against the gruesome results of what happens when you pass their aptitude test. The short lives on its tone; the gentle playfulness of the interview amplifies the intercut gore, making both sequences more effective. And not a single additional scene – not one more piece of character development – is necessary. In fact, it might have ruined the short altogether.
Step back from the individual short films and you can also see the steady growth of the Alamo Drafthouse in ABCs OF DEATH 2. It’s not a stretch to say that the original film worked better as a celebration of organizational culture than as an individual movie. Many of the writers and directors were regulars at the Drafthouse’s annual genre-based film festival; the geographic diversity of the films and the emphasis on grindhouse cinema is an extension of the taste of the Drafthouse founder, Tim League. This new ABCs OF DEATH shows the staggering ambition of the company, blending low- and high-class in equal amounts and blurring the line between production and exhibition. And this means I hold movies like ABCs OF DEATH 2 to the highest possible standard. When things are going well, the line between being the Greatest Genre Production Company of All Time and the next Hollywood antitrust case sometimes seems pretty thin.
Is ABCs OF DEATH 2 now the king of the anthology horror film? Purists will likely point to either TALES FROM THE CRYPT feature and say that they established (and re-established) the form of the subgenre. Contemporary genre fans might argue that TRICK’R TREAT gave the subgenre a much-needed shot in the arm at the end of the last decade. And somewhere, one angry young man is waving a DVD of AFTER MIDNIGHT at the screen and working on an epic post in the comments. Whatever you favorite anthology film may be, I feel fairly confident in saying that ABCs OF DEATH 2 falls closer on the scale to that than it does the cheap imitators. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding at least thirteen shorts to like, and .500 is a pretty excellent batting average for any company.
ABCs OF DEATH 2 is on VOD and now playing in select theaters. To find a list of theaters and where to watch on VOD visit the Magnet website here.
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