The Sundance hit ‘XX’ has an easy selling point. It’s an anthology of horror shorts directed exclusively by women, who generally don’t get many shots behind the camera in the horror genre. As usual with these sorts of projects, the results are hit and miss. However, the movie proves to be an effective talent showcase that should hopefully further the careers of at least a few of the filmmakers involved.
The flick kicks off with some trippy and surreal gothic stop-motion animation from Sofia Carrillo, which provides a loose wraparound structure for the project. Her works recalls the Brothers Quay in the best possible way, fashioning living nightmares out of what appear to be found objects that slither under the skin. These brief interludes don’t have much of a story, but given that the wraparound pieces tend to be the least satisfying parts of other anthology movies, letting an experimental filmmaker go nuts with dark imagery is an unconventional and bizarrely satisfying decision.
The first proper short to hit the screen is Jovanka Vuckovic’s ‘The Box’, adapted from a short story by cult author Jack Ketchum (‘The Lost’, ‘The Girl Next Door’). As is always the way with Ketchum, the story starts benign then grows into something nightmarishly graphic and unsettling. At first, it’s about a middle class family whose youngest child suddenly refuses to eat. Vuckovic plays her cards close to her chest, using meticulously framed images and a creeping camera to keep the tone unsettling from the get-go. It’s both a bleakly funny short about the horror of parents losing touch with their children and a gag-inducing bit of body horror that’s tough to shake off. The deliberately paced short was a good choice to go first as it slowly weaves a hypnotic mood before delivering a climax nastier than anything else in the anthology. It’s also probably the best and most ambitious short in the bunch.
Next up comes something far lighter. Annie “St. Vincent” Clark makes her directorial debut with ‘The Birthday Cake’, a strange dark comedy that barely even feels like horror. The always delightful Melanie Lynskey stars as a stressed suburban mom whose tough day of planning her daughter’s birthday party under the gaze of her nosy neighbor is made even more difficult by the discovery of her husband’s corpse. She hides the body and attempts to carry on and… well… it doesn’t work out. Lynskey’s fantastic and Clark has a strong visual aesthetic. However, this piece feels more like an overlong comedy sketch not nearly as dark as it thinks it is. It’s easily the weakest short in the anthology.
Next up, longtime horror anthology producer/director Roxanne Benjamin (‘V/H/S’, ‘Southbound’) pops up with ‘Don’t Fall’, a simple tale about a group of prankster twenty-somethings who awaken an ancient demon for some passion and murder. The story ain’t much, but the short is a damn effective directorial showcase for Benjamin. From the tone-setting showoff title shot to the relentless and bloody finale, Benjamin shows that she’s got the chops to pummel viewers with stylish spectacle. It’s a rip-roaring little rollercoaster of a monster romp that’s the most entertaining and viscerally effective film in ‘XX’. It could very well help Benjamin land a bigger project since it shows off her cinematic skills so succinctly. Hopefully a producer out there notices.
Finally, the most experienced filmmaker, Karyn Kusama (‘Jennifer’s Body’, ‘Girlfight’) wraps things up with ‘Her Only Living Son’, a li’l Antichrist horror. Essentially, it’s a “What if?” riff on ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in which a mother (Christina Kirk) who knew she had the son of Satan in her belly fled to a small town and attempted to bring the boy up right (i.e. uninterested in pursuing the apocalypse). Unfortunately, troubled teen years have caused the boy to develop some of his father’s tendencies and Kirk has a tough go at the mommy thing. It’s a clever little idea executed with flair by Kusama and backed by some effective performances, but the short doesn’t really have time to do much more than set up its creepy concept. It likely would have been better served by being fleshed out to feature length. So, ‘XX’ doesn’t exactly end on a high note, but at least the finale is one of the most polished shorts in the anthology.
‘XX’ doesn’t really have a grand stand-out short that makes it immediately worth picking up. The entries in the collection range from strong to fair. Nothing really explodes of the screen, but nothing particularly stinks it up either. It’s a satisfying anthology horror flick for those who enjoy such things and a nice talent showcase for some women directors who deserve the attention and career boost. With a little luck, one or two of the directors will go on to bigger and better things after enough eyeballs get on ‘XX’. The feature also generated enough attention that it might warrant a sequel, but it’s unlikely to be remembered as a classic. That’s fine. These productions are generally intended to be glossy audition pieces. ‘XX’ puts a nice spotlight on some filmmakers who deserve it, which is really all you can hope for from this sort of thing.