Learning More ABCs

Ascher, Barratt, and Fessenden dissect their anthology segments

C is for collaboration: Larry Fessenden on the set of his segment for The ABCs of Death 2

From amateur assassins to a teenage zygote, alphabetical horror anthology The ABCs of Death 2 was an education in morbidity at Fantastic Fest 2014. As the anthology is unleashed upon VOD today, three of the segment directors tell us about their miniaturized tales that witness madness.

A is for Ascher

Rodney Ascher is a Fantastic Fest veteran for his award-winning 2012 documentary Room 237, chronicling the ever-circling obsessions over hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. He's already hard at work on his next documentary, The Nightmare, detailing the hellish experiences of victims of sleep paralysis. That makes his segment, "Q is for Questionnaire," is a dramatic change of pace: Sidewalk personality profiles, brain surgery, and, yes, a super ape.

While the concept seems like 1950s mad scientist SF, the structure has a more artistic inspiration: Steven Soderbergh's 2002 adaptation of Solaris. "There's a scene in there that I always admire, in which George Clooney is at a cocktail party in the future. He meets a woman, and the two of them have a little idle cocktail conversation. They start to flirt, and midway through the scene, it cuts to them going back to his place, but the sound from the party continues over it. I thought it was a really strong idea, to juxtapose the soundtrack of how they met over to what was going to happen as a result of it."

So what about the gorilla? "That came from an early episode of Gilligan's Island that burned its way into my subconscious when I was six years old."

His cerebral approach created an unusual problem. While most other segments have an obvious victim and cause of death (gun, oyster pick, hentai tentacle penis), the producers were a little less clear whether he really added to the body count. Yes, he told them, but with a coda: "Depending on whether you believe Aristotle or Descartes, the question is, was it the man or the gorilla?"

B is for Barratt

The first time I saw Julian Barratt, he was in a cardboard biplane, pretending to shoot down a kaiju costume penis. He was part of the show King Dong vs. Moby Dick at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival. Now the star of cult British surrealist comedy The Mighty Boosh is a film director, and he credits FF alum Ben Wheatley helping him make the jump. Barratt said, "He's friends with friends in London, and he put me in A Field in England. I got chatting to the producer Andy Stark, and I said, I want to make stuff, I want to make films, I've got ideas. He said the best thing to do is make something really quick and simple."

For his ABCs 2 segment, "B is for Badger," he curls back the lid on the seemingly polite world of British nature documentaries. "I shot it found-footage style, documentary style, with a bit of gore, a bit of blood." His original idea was for something much more grandiose. "It was set in Greenland, and it was about a bunch of people in a documentary that found something frightening. But then I realized I couldn't afford to do that." So he came closer to home, stuck the producer's son down a hole, and created three minutes of black comedy.

Barratt himself appears as the chief victim of the underground assailants. "I'm in it," he said, "because I'm cheap." However, his character is based on a real, if unnamed, TV host. "This guy I knew was telling me stories about him. They were filming in Norfolk, this bit about natural woodland, and this guy was going, 'The trees here are naturally occurring. The woodland is dense and chaotic, and untrammeled by human hand.' After he said cut, the director said, 'That's all very good, but I live ’round here and this part of the wood is man-made.' 'No it isn't.' 'No, I don't want to be funny, but if someone watches it and they recognize it, they'll say, actually, this was planted about 40 years ago.' 'Someone's going to get punched in a minute.' So I thought, that would be a good character."

F is for Fessenden

There's one question about Larry Fessenden directing a segment for a Fantastic Fest-related anthology: What took so long?

"I tickled around with VHS right in the beginning," he said, "but the timing didn't work. The funny thing about that is that I took it too seriously, and the schedule's changed."

"N is for Nexus" proves that VHS' loss was ABCs gain. The homage to time-sensitive thriller Run Lola Run returns Fessenden to the concrete and brownstone New York of his early, seminal work, as an ill-fated couple try to meet up on Halloween. It was also a return to his early, zero-budget, guerrilla filmmaking style: "We didn't really control the streets, so I was constantly going back, saying, 'Well, I need this one other shot. Well, I'll just ride my bike really fast through the intersection, and hope I get it.'"

The finished product is a lesson in efficiency as elegance, edited to the microsecond, as he brings the separated lovers, trick or treaters, a cab driver, and a businesswoman together along a tragic trajectory. Fessenden said, "I'm obsessed with chance," which he called "my basis of horror. There's also the violent horror, and the psychological thing of people slowly going mad. But there's this other element, which is about timing and those little things that would affect the convergence, and lead to a terrible, unfortunate mishap. It's the punchline you know is coming, but you're not quite sure in which way it will come."

Fessenden's segment may be the most loaded with references, from the universal (both Frankenstein's monster and his bride), and in-jokes for his fans (including a glimpse of the You're Next masks, and a super-brief cameo by fellow indie horror master JT Petty). There's a director's cut that's around six minutes but, he said, "It's no better. In fact, it's not as good, because it was just about torquing the screws."

There's only one edit that he almost regrets having to make: "Glen McQuaid, my friend the filmmaker, dressed as a nun, running through a shot. But it actually, believe it or not, slowed things down."

ABCs of Death 2 is available on VOD today. For an interview with the Soska twins about their segment, "T is for Torture Porn", read How Do You Spell Trouble?, Sept. 19.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Fantastic Fest 2014
Ethan Embry Licks <i>The Devil's Candy</i>
Ethan Embry Licks The Devil's Candy
Cheap Thrills star on his very heavy metal Austin horror

Richard Whittaker, March 31, 2017

DVDanger: Fantastic Fest Rewind
DVDanger: Fantastic Fest Rewind
Before the deluge, a 2014 flashback

Richard Whittaker, Sept. 23, 2015

More by Richard Whittaker
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Geeky Lifestyle Brand BoxLunch Brings Exclusive Indiana Jones Pop-Up to Austin
Fortune and glory awaits you at Barton Creek Square this weekend

June 1, 2023

How to Run a TV Festival in a TV Strike
How to Run a TV Festival in a TV Strike
ATX TV Festival respects writers as they work and protest

June 2, 2023


Fantastic Fest 2014, VOD, The ABCs of Death 2, Rodney Ascher, Julian Barratt, Larry Fessenden

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle