'The ABCs of Death' Surveys Contemporary Horror With Mixed Results

Horror movies haven't changed that much since the gory glory days of '80s slasher movies, but how we think and talk about them has. Some of the things that ghettoized horror movies back then—small budgets, excessive gore, and direct-to-video distribution—are the same things that lend the genre an air of sophisticated, self-conscious artistic legitimacy in the early part of the 21st century.

A generation of young auteurs is reclaiming horror from big franchises like Final Destination, Paranormal Activity, and Rob Zombie remakes with a new model, based on decades of independent art-house filmmaking and abetted by the Internet's nerd culture: graphically violent and low-budget movies, an established festival circuit, and straight-to-DVD releases and streaming services that circumvent suburban multiplexes. It's basically the same creative and business blueprint followed by respected indie directors for decades, from John Cassavetes to Joe Swanberg. But it's also pretty much exactly the way that drive-in and B-movie specialists like Roger Corman, John Carpenter, and Troma Entertainment made movies in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. So: prestige filmmaking or cheap exploitation? Is the new wave of horror descended from Steven Soderbergh or Faces of Death?

The ABCs of Death, which the Knoxville Horror Film Festival is screening this weekend, suggests it's a little of both. The anthology collects 26 short films—one for each letter of the alphabet—by 26 acclaimed directors from around the world, most of them under 40. The compilation is uneven, of course—there's some real crap, as well as a handful of surprises and an even smaller handful of genuine winners, but most of it is just mediocre. That's to be expected from feature directors stepping back down to short films, presumably with little incentive to put in the same kind of effort they would expend on bigger projects. But it makes the 124-minute running time something of an endurance test; The ABCs of Death is more useful as a survey of the new wave of horror than as an entertaining feature on its own. Unlike other recent anthologies, like V/H/S, which have some sort of narrative thread connecting the individual pieces, ABCs is scattershot and unpredictable. But it has its own particular value: The curious can figure out if they're interested in contemporary horror, and the initiated can check in on favorite directors like Ti West, Nacho Vigalondo, Adam Wingard, and Ben Wheatley.

West's brief "M Is for Miscarriage" is the anthology's biggest disappointment; West has distinguished himself as one of the new wave's smartest and most accomplished directors with House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but "Miscarriage" has no narrative drive, no surprise, and no stakes. (West-haters might say that the same applies to House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but they would be wrong.) Oak Ridge native Wingard's "Q Is for Quack" is another letdown—Wingard crafted a brilliant twist ending for 2010's A Horrible Way to Die, but "Quack" concludes with a self-referential accidental standoff that seems about 15 years out of date.

The surprises, in general, don't quite make up for the duds. Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z Is for Zetsumetsu," about a bizarre sex-obsessed Japanese game show with references to Dr. Strangelove, isn't like anything else in ABCs, or like much of anything anywhere else. But it's not necessarily good, either. (Nishimura does out-WTF? Jon Schnepp's "W Is for WTF," a dull and predictable collage of Adult Swim-style animation and live action.) Some of the shorts—Ernesto Diaz Espinoza's time-bending "C Is for Cycle," Wheatley's Wicker Man-inspired "U Is for Unearthed," and A Serbian Film director Srdjan Spasojevic's "R Is for Removed"—hint at potentially rewarding full-length treatments. Timo Tjahjanto's "L for Libido" mixes sadism and voyeurism with intellectual ambition, and Jason Eisener's "Y Is for Youngbuck" tries to connect bloody revenge with a social conscience, though it doesn't quite rise above cheap thrills.

Four films clearly stand out from the rest: Noboru Iguchi's confounding and strangely charming erotic fantasy "F Is for Fart;" Banjong Pisanthanakun's "N Is for Nuptials," a cautionary tale about a talkative parrot that takes full advantage of its short form; and Anders Morgenthaler's "K Is for Klutz" and Lee Hardcastle's "T Is for Toilet," a pair of animated shorts that explore the terrors of the bathroom. "Toilet," especially, with its compressed but detailed storyline, deftly sketched characters, and its exploitation of deep-seated fears for nervous laughs, accomplishes everything that could be expected of a short film.

And all of that seems like a useful summation of new-wave horror—some really terrible stuff, a lot more that's just forgettable, and a few infrequent masterpieces. If you suspect this is for you, it just might be. And now you have a good way to find out.