XX ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Roxanne Benjamin (Don't Fall) and Karyn Kusama (Her Only Living Son) and Anne Clark aka St. Vincent (The Birthday Cake) and Jovanka Vuckovic (The Box).
Written by: Jovanka Vuckovic based on the story by Jack Ketchum (The Box) and Roxanne Benjamin & Anne Clark aka St. Vincent (The Birthday Party) and Roxanne Benjamin (Don't Fall) and Karyn Kusama (Her Only Living Son).
Starring: Natalie Brown (Susan Jacobs -The Box), Jonathan Watton (Robert Jacobs - The Box), Peter DaCunha (Danny Jacobs -The Box), Peyton Kennedy (Jenny Jacobs - The Box) Melanie Lynskey (Mary - The Birthday Party), Seth Duhame (David - The Birthday Party), Sanai Victoria (Lucy - The Birthday Party), Sheila Vand (Carla - The Birthday Party), Lindsay Burdge (Madeleine - The Birthday Party), Casey Adams (Paul - Don't Fall), Breeda Wool (Gretchen - Don't Fall), Angela Trimbur (Jess - Don't Fall), Morgan Krantz (Jay - Don't Fall), Christina Kirk (Cora - Her Only Living Son), Kyle Allen (Andy - Her Only Living Son), Mike Doyle (Chet - Her Only Living Son), Brenda Wehle (Principal Jenks - Her Only Living Son), Morgan Peter Brown (Mr. Dayton - Her Only Living Son).
XX is a film I wanted to like a whole lot more than I ended up liking it - as the film sadly ranks as a missed opportunity more than anything else. Omnibus films often are overall disappointments, but usually they offer at least a couple of segments that are worth seeing. XX – which is a horror anthology with a great premise – films made by, for and about women – has four segments, none of which are really bad, but none that really rise to the level of must see either. More disappointingly, I think the films mainly miss the mark of doing something truly outside the box in terms of its depiction on women in the horror genre. Horror has always had more female stars than most other genres – but more often than not, those female stars are used for their bodies – which are often sexuality or brutalized in the film (and more often than not, both) – for the sadistic pleasure of the men making and viewing the movie. Watching these four shorts – all of which run about 20 minutes – I never really got the sense that anything was being upended.
The first segment – The Box – from director Jovanka Vuckovic – is one of the better segments. A mother, riding on the subway with her two kids, sees a man holding a shiny red package. Her young son wants to know what’s in the box – and the man shows him (but no one else, including the audience). From then on, her son refused to eat – saying he isn’t hungry. Eventually he’ll tell his sister – and she’ll stop eating as well. The woman fights with her husband about how best to handle things – because they cannot agree – and then, the son will also let his dad in on the secret. Things get worse and worse for the family. This segment is effectively directed and acted – it’s never scary per se, but it’s plenty creepy and overall, quite sad – but when it’s over, you can’t help but feel let down. That’s it? There’s a fine line between ambiguous and lazy in terms of storytelling – and I think this is the later.
The second film – The Birthday Party – by director Annie Clark aka St. Vincent, the singer – isn’t really horror at all, but a black comedy. The wonderful Melanie Lynsky stars as a rich woman, trying to throw the perfect party for her son, but one bad thing happens after another – the worse being she finds her husband – who wasn’t even supposed to be there – dead in the study, and finds the stupidest way imaginable for dealing with it. Lynsky is, as always, game for anything – and she’s basically keeping this segment afloat solo, as I’m not sure it’s anything other than a darker vignette cut from Bad Moms.
The third segment Don’t Fall - directed by Roxanne Benjamin, has four young people head off into the wilderness, where they come across some hieroglyphs, before settling down for a night of drinking and talking. There are two guys and two girls on the trip – and the men spend all of their time either playing “jokes” on the women (that they don’t find funny), or mansplaining things to them. And then things take a dark and violent turn – and the men reveal themselves for who they really are. This is the bloodiest and most traditionally horror-like of the shorts, and the creature effects and gore are well handled, for what had to be a small budget. It’s also the most confused of the segments – as I’m not quite sure it knows what it’s saying about any of these paper thin characters, or much of anything else. It’s also the most disappointing – as I really like Benjamin’s segment in last year’s horror omnibus – Southbound.
It’s not surprising that the fourth and final segment – by Karyn Kusama – is the best of the lo – as Kusama really is the most well-known and experience of the filmmakers – and coming off last year’s horror-esque triumph The Invitation, is in the zone for something this creepy. Her segment, Her Only Living Son, is about a single mother (Christina Kirk), raising a disobedient son (Kyle Allen) – approaching his 18th birthday, and things start to go from bad to worse. This is the only segment that I felt really delivered – the one that truly challenged the idea of motherhood in any real way (the film starts off like We Need to Talk About Kevin – and then morphs into something else), the only one that gets under your skin, and the only one where I was disappointed that the film couldn’t be longer – as I think Kusama is excellent at the slow burn build-up (like the aforementioned The Invitation) and doesn’t quite has the space to maneuver in just 20 minutes. So even this, easily the best of the bunch, doesn’t quite deliver as it should.
In fact, the incredibly creepy animation in between segments is probably the best damn thing about XX. The concept for women taking over the horror genre for themselves in a good one – even in an omnibus form, which is never the easiest format to make work. It’s just that this time the results do not match the good intentions behind the project.