Directed by: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic
Premise: An anthology consisting of four short horror films all directed by female moviemakers and featuring women in the lead roles.
What Works: The latter two stories in XX are the strongest parts of the anthology. “Don’t Fall” is the story of a group of friends vacationing in the woods where they encounter a primal curse that turns one of their companions into a monster. This story works within a familiar genre template of the “vacation gone bad” but filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin does it well. Within the brief space of this film, “Don’t Fall” establishes four distinct characters and creates a sense of their personalities and relationships. It’s also the scariest of the four entries in XX. “Don’t Fall” includes a few shocking jumps and it creates an atmosphere of dread through creepy lighting and effective framing of the action. “Her Only Living Son” is the most ambitious segment of XX and the most intelligent. This short, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, concerns a mother whose teenage son appears to be a burgeoning psychopath. Kusama previously directed Jennifer’s Body and Girlfight, and her experience shows on the screen. Everything about this entry is more complex than the other shorts of XX. As the story unfolds, the boy’s condition is revealed to be more complex than it initially appears and “Her Only Living Son” is distinct from the other shorts of XX in the way it plays upon the audience’s expectations. This episode is a disturbing but thoughtful take on the bonds between mothers and sons as well as the problem of evil. This allows the film to get beyond the immediate frights and get in touch with deeper fears.
What Doesn’t: The first two stories of XX are the weaker entries in this lot. “The Box,” directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, concerns a suburban family whose son stops eating after having a look inside of a stranger’s giftwrapped package. There are a few creepy images in “The Box” but it doesn’t create much tension. Part of the problem is the performances by the family members, especially the mother played by Natalie Brown. For a story about a family that is self-destructing, “The Box” does not get an authentically concerned reaction out of the parents. That may be a deliberate choice since the film seems to be reaching toward a bigger point about motherhood and the emptiness of consumerist suburban life but the film doesn’t get there. The story fails to come together in a way that makes sense. The second short of XX is “The Birthday Cake” directed Annie Clark, better known by her musical stage name St. Vincent. “The Birthday Cake” deserves credit for being as weird as it is but the short is macabre instead of scary. It aims for the black comedy of Parents but its punchline doesn’t pay off as well as it ought to. As a whole, XX also falls short of taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the short form and by anthology projects. Where feature length movies tend to require filmmakers to adhere to conventional cinematic styles, a short film offers opportunities to take risks and experiment with the form; this is seen in some of the more adventurous entries in The ABCs of Death and Extraordinary Tales. Nothing in XX does that. The shorts are mostly abbreviated versions of the same kinds of stories we see in feature length horror pictures. XX also fails to do much with the female gimmick. There is a lack of female directors in the moviemaking field and this film offers a chance to see what we’ve been missing. The very nature of the project suggests that there is a uniquely feminine horror cinema. But most of XX doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before in male directed titles like Rosemary’s Baby or Jeepers Creepers.
Bottom Line: Like a lot of anthology features, XX is a mixed bag. All of these filmmakers demonstrate skill, although some more than others, and two of the four shorts are good with a third qualifying as “interesting.” For horror fans looking to discover new voices in the genre, XX is worth a look.
Episode: #637 (March 5, 2017)