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A lot is being made of the fact that XX is made entirely by women. Even the title celebrates this. And really, it should be celebrated as the genre is, like all the others, disconcertingly imbalanced. It’s just too bad this is still a thing that needs to be made note of. That said, XX is a film of four short horror stories that look to add a little balance to the inequality, and while it’s an ambitious effort, if somewhat flawed, it is a solid mix of sub-genre types and tropes that mostly succeeds.
First out of the box is well, a film called The Box, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, that sees a tired mother named Susan (Natalie Brown) riding a train in from the city with her two children Jenny (Peyton Kennedy) and Danny (Peter DaCunha) after an exhaustive day Christmas shopping. Sitting beside Danny is a peculiar-looking man with a bright red gift-wrapped box on his lap. Danny asks to see inside and the man obliges, tipping the lid just enough to let him peek at what lies within. We don’t see inside, but whatever it is, it shutters the boy.
That night, he refuses to eat dinner. And lunch the next day. And then again, and again, explaining that he’s simply not hungry. It raises concerns, and a doctor warns perhaps there is some emotional issues. But Danny says he’s fine. As his father (Jonathan Watton) desperately tries to make him eat, things only spiral down from there. The most obscure of the four chapters, The Box has the most mystery and ambiguity with one jarring, gruesome moment that earns the horror moniker with honor, while making a powerful statement about motherhood.
Second is Annie Clark‘s The Birthday Party about a woman planning a costumed-themed bash for her young daughter but gets a surprise of her own when she finds her husband slumped over dead in the den. What follows is a bizarre black comedy as she spends the remainder of the story trying to keep the body hidden from a stream of interrupting neighbors and such, ending in a strange slo-motion reveal and a post script that is more humorous than horror. It’s the most out of place of the group and is perhaps the least effective as its premise is one-note and the payoff a bit disappointing.
Next up is Roxanne Benjamin‘s Don’t Fall, which follows four twenty-somethings on a hiking trip in the desert who come upon some strange markings on a rock. The petroglyphs are the harbinger of a Native American mythological monster and the chapter doesn’t waste a minute of its ten or so minute runtime, building tension quickly as a beast comes a knocking. A tale spun purely for frights, there’s nothing layered about the characters other than being fodder, and while it lacks punch simply because we don’t care who these people are, there’s no escaping the truly terrifying visuals that close this story, and in of itself could be a proof of concept for a bigger movie.
Last is Karyn Kusama‘s Her Only Living Son about the literal son of the Devil. Cora (Christina Kirk) is dealing with the coming 18th birthday of her son Andy (Kyle Allen) who has been showing signs of some disturbing behavior lately, including yanking the fingers nails off a friend at school. The problem is, most people don’t seem to mind, and in fact, seem quite pleased with his progress. When she’s told his real father is coming to claim him soon, she doesn’t quite understand at first that it’s the fulfillment of a deal made long ago, and there’s no stopping it now.
Kusama delivers the most structured and perhaps most approachable of the set. Coming off last year’s sensational The Invitation, she builds great suspense and easily the most emotionally impactful experience of the four. Heavy themes of deadbeat dads, abandonment, and the struggles of a single mother as she must say goodbye to her boy make for a compelling little short, even if it lacks inspiration.
What’s really intriguing about XX is the outstanding stop-motion animation by Sofia Carrillo that serves as the go-between of sorts between each chapter, with a beginning and end that tie it up into its own little story, like a fifth segment. Macabre and disturbing yet impossible not to watch, these minor bits are a highlight.
XX isn’t going to turn the genre upside down, but it’s a worthy entry in the horror anthology market, of which there are many. While it might not come packed with too many frights, it has plenty for fans and could make for a decent double bill with Holidays (2016) or Southbound (2015).
Movie description: XX is a 2017 four-story collection of short horror films written and directed by women.
Director(s): Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic
Actor(s): Lloyd Kaufman, Alyssa Hunter, Katelyn Hunter