Director(s): Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark
Writer(s): Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Jack Ketchum
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Digital, Color, 80 mins
Synopsis: Four short horror films that are directed and written by women. (Source)
After years of serving as fodder to ghosts, murderers and the unknown, the women behind XX are taking horror back, delivering a killer anthology that sidesteps the genre’s complacency. Spanning four demented stories, the film explores everything from psychological angst to demonic terror, relying on a thick sense of atmosphere and a startling sense of the unknown. Though most anthologies have a tendency to be hit or miss, these shorts thrive through their brevity, never outstaying their welcome, while also being wildly diverse. Spanish artist Sofia Carrillo stitches everything together with macabre interstitials, while the film as a whole, amounts to a creepy, inventive breath of fresh air.
Things kick off with Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, a rousing Jack Ketchum adaptation. In it, a weary mother and her children encounter a strange man transporting a present on the subway. Her son asks to view what’s inside the man’s box, but soon after he’s allowed a peek, the boy undergoes some alarming changes. Next up, Annie Clark (musical artist St. Vincent) turns in the film’s most comically endearing chapter, The Birthday Party. The plot concerns a mother who vows to give her daughter a memorable birthday party – even after she discovers her husband, dead and slumped over in his study. There’s a dancing teddy bear, nosy neighbors and one supremely twisted sense of humor. The next segment, Roxanne Benjamin’s The Fall, follows a group of friends on a camping trip. They stumble upon some ruins and unwittingly conjure up an ancient evil. Finally, the film goes out with a bang, closing things with Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son. This one deals with a mother who will do anything to protect her only son, even as his 18th birthday approaches and a sinister force begins to ensnare him.
The film’s real strength, is that its horror comes from intangible ideas and uncontrollable situations, highlighting a fear of failure and inadequacy harbored by its female characters. Three out of the four stories deal with mothers and the relationships between their children, with monsters that punctuate maternal anxiety, an innate drive for familial protection, and in some cases, guilt. In that sense, a lot of the film’s conflict stems from amplifying the mundane or feeding upon insecurity. Thanks to this singular perspective, the film doesn’t need to rely solely on its boogeymen, monsters or jump scares, although it does deliver its fair share of creatures, blood and guts. Personal favorites would have to be Clark’s The Birthday Party, just for its irreverent eccentricity, and Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, a Rosemary’s Baby riff that is as emotionally harrowing as it is diabolical.
Overall, the XX maintains a slick sense of style and moody consistency, complimenting its primal terror with thrilling execution and an occasional sense of playfulness. From chapter to chapter, each story is a smart contrast to what came before, building a dense feeling of unease and coming together as a cohesive whole. In addition, the performances are strong across the board (Melanie Lynskey and Christina Kirk are easy standouts), and you can expect a subversive take on the tropes which have defined the genre for so long. Just as much of horror is beginning to feel stale, this anthology reminds us that the scariest things out there are ourselves, and that true horror comes from within. With that being said, this film is an antidote to the tired “final girl” template, offering up a series of twisted tales that linger in our brains with sadistic aplomb. Expect something a bit different, and you’ll be rewarded for getting on the film’s wavelength.