XX Is a Horror Anthology, So of Course It’s a Mixed Bag
All four segments have something worth recommending, and one is a terrifically creepy success.
The world is a place built on facts. The Earth is round. Biological life needs air and water to live. The second season of True Detective is superior to the first. And horror anthology movies are always going to be a mixed bag.
Yes, even Creepshow. (Sorry “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” fans.)
The latest horror-ish collection to hit screens is a four tale feature called XX, and while it’s being marketed as the first strictly from women writers/directors the equally important takeaway is that it’s from creative talents who truly love the genre. Their love and appreciation of the dark and twisted is on full display here, and even when elements fail to come together their strengths are evident.
The four tales aren’t connected in a narrative sense, but they are separated by beautifully atmospheric stop-motion animation from Sofia Carillo. Inanimate objects come to life and move throughout a desolate house, and the effect is a feeling of eerie and unsettling madness.
First up is “The Box” from director Jovanka Vuckovic who adapts a Jack Ketchum short story about a women who watches her family disintegrate in an odd way after her son glimpses the contents of a stranger’s brightly-wrapped box in the days before Christmas. We don’t see what the boy sees, but the effect it has on him is immediate as he loses his appetite and refuses to eat a thing. It’s a terrific setup that grows beyond the child, and while he seems otherwise normal his loss of desire for food – and as made clear through calm yet haunting bits of dialogue – and for life itself is visibly affecting. Unfortunately, just as the story hits its big emotional beat it comes to an abrupt end. It ultimately goes nowhere leaving viewers with far too much heavy lifting in an effort to afford the short a possible meaning.
“The Birthday Party” is directed by Annie Clark (aka musician St. Vincent) and co-written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin. The story finds a woman (Melanie Lynskey) intent on making sure her son’s birthday goes off without a hitch, but when she finds her husband dead in his office that goal becomes less and less likely as she tries to avoid the discovery of his corpse. Clark plays the tale with a heightened visual sense through bright colors, physical comedy, and wardobe/makeup that screams for attention. It’s a playful short, but despite the visual exaggerations the whole feels understated in its effect. Lynskey proves her talent with physical hijinx, but it feels as if she’s not being used to the best of her extensive abilities.
Benjamin (Southbound) pulls solo duty as writer/director on “Don’t Fall,” and the result is the film’s inarguable standout. The story is simple, generic even, in its setup of four friends in a remote locale who find themselves stalked by an ancient evil, but Benjamin directs the hell out of it showcasing a vast knowledge and skill-set when it comes to making visceral horror work onscreen. Her performers are solid despite not getting a lot of screen time before things turn deadly, but that’s okay because once the terror starts it’s a fun and bloody ride through to the very end. Benjamin creates set-pieces and shots with an eye for effective scares and creepy visuals, and by the time it ends you’ll immediately be wishing someone would let her direct her own feature. Like, now.
The final tale, “Her Only Living Son,” comes from the film’s only proven big-screen talent, Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), and involves a single mother whose teenage son is showing increasingly disturbing signs. The pair have history, and it’s clear something’s coming as evident by those around them and his odd behaviors, but there’s too much familiarity in the story turns that many viewers will see coming well in advance. Still, Kusama’s talent behind the camera makes even the obvious feel fresh at times as our mother and son head towards what promises finality however it ends.
Each story has strengths and weaknesses, but all four have enough to warrant spending time with your eyeballs. Some of the issues though seem to rest with the post-production rather than the individual filmmakers. Odd choices distract from the experience including excessive fades-to-black in the first two tales and the mistaken (?) choice to give each short two title screens – the first is plain text on the screen, and the second is the actual title treatment. It feels like the kind of thing that should have trimmed from the finished product as it implies the pieces were tossed together without a strong guiding hand.
XX is a good horror anthology with highs and lows, as expected, and I have no reservations in my desire to see more from each of the wickedly creative women featured. But let’s start by giving Benjamin her own movie…