XX feels tonally like the first V/H/S film in that it’s a different breed of an anthology, one that shows promise in the format and concept, but never meets its full potential.
It’s been a long road for XX, a collaborative anthology effort between horror indie darlings XYZ Films, Snowfort Pictures, and an ever-changing roster of female genre directors. But that road ended at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, at which XX became one of the most highly anticipated offerings in the subversive Midnight line-up. But with a relatively untested roster of filmmakers- save for Karyn Kusama of THE INVITATION, GIRLFIGHT, and JENNIFER’S BODY– there was much speculation over whether XX would rise above the recent glut of anthology films in the genre marketplace as of late.
The good news is that, as a whole, XX is stronger than your average anthology project, with a majority of the segments packing a petrifying punch and proving the endeavor to be worth the wait. The bad news is that XX never quite reaches greatness, with the project not quite exuding the confidence of a cohesive anthology project while instead of feeling like an experiment, or possibly a test run for a follow-up. In a way, XX feels tonally like the first V/H/S film in that it’s a different breed of an anthology, one that shows promise in the format and concept, but never meets its full potential.
That said, for the most part, XX works, offering diverse, unique perspectives on some truly eerie subject matter. In fact, there are thematic similarities- three of the four narrative segments focus on motherhood horror stories- that almost feel like afterthoughts considering how different each tale feels in atmosphere and execution. And while a project such of this would have definitely benefitted from a more traditional wraparound segment, Sofia Carrillo’s spectacular stop-motion animation segments set the unsettling groundwork for the shorts to come.
The first segment of XX is “The Box,” former Rue Morgue editor Jovanka Vuckovic’s adaptation of transgressive literary horror master Jack Ketchum’s short story. Starring Natalie Brown (of CHANNEL ZERO and THE STRAIN fame), “The Box” follows an enigmatic encounter on a train that has dire consequences for an idyllic suburban family. Going more for dread over traditional scares, “The Box” is a solid genre effort, using the gradual escalation of an already unnerving premise to get under your skin in the worst way.
Vuckovic uses the quiet moments to great effect, and shows much promise in coaxing subtle, naturalistic performances from her cast. Yet if there’s anything that stops “The Box” from being masterful, it’s the story, which commits so steadfast to its core mystery that it ultimately leaves the audience with a frustrating, anticlimactic conclusion. Nevertheless, Vuckovic certainly impresses with “The Box,” and her uncompromising decision to go for a bleak, emotionally dire ending is to be admired, even if it comes at the cost of narrative satisfaction.
Following “The Box” is the directorial debut of Annie Clark (a/k/a St. Vincent), who takes the film in a tonal U-turn with “The Birthday Party.” A pastel and offbeat horror comedy short co-written by SOUTHBOUND filmmaker Roxanne Benjamin, “The Birthday Party” features a mother (HEAVENLY CREATURES’ Melanie Lynskey) who must attend to the sudden appearance of her husband’s corpse on the morning of her daughter’s birthday party. Despite an inspired performance from Lynskey that anchors the segment, “The Birthday Party” is a misfire, relying often on sound design and its general weirdness to sell the genre elements while the comedy falls flat. Even a gag regarding the title of the film feels like a tag on a joke that’s already gone on way too long.
While Clark’s ambition as a filmmaker is to be applauded, her lack of experience as a visual storyteller leaves “The Birthday Party” as the weakest contribution of XX. Perhaps with a few more short films under her belt, Clark could come back with a stronger genre effort in the future; her distinct artistic choices, from art direction to music to the color scheme, is undeniably remarkable. But for now, “The Birthday Party” is unfortunately not worth celebrating, both as an individual segment and as a part of the whole picture.
Luckily, XX leaps back on track with gusto in the third segment, “Don’t Fall,” written and directed by the aforementioned Roxanne Benjamin. Sharing stylistic similarities to Benjamin’s SOUTHBOUND short, “Don’t Fall” follows four people whose daytrip into the desert takes a vicious turn. While the other two previous segments are relatively minimalist in their approach to horror, “Don’t Fall” is a visceral experience through and through, one that would proudly sit aside bloody and bonkers monster fare such as Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS or the original EVIL DEAD.
Benjamin’s clever utilization of her characters as well as her resourceful display of production value from the natural landscapes is extremely impressive, especially once the film fully descends into monster movie territory. Above all else though, “Don’t Fall” is legitimately scary; hell, if there’s any fault to be laid on “Don’t Fall,” it’s that it’s runtime is too short, as this writer wishes there was more time to savor and appreciate the madness of the segment’s third act. Minor nitpick aside, Roxanne Benjamin knocks her XX segment out of the park and absolutely demonstrates that she’s ready for a feature of her own design.
The fourth and final segment of XX is Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” a story that fits the same paranoid mold as her previous film, THE INVITATION. But “Her Only Living Son” works best as a cinematic puzzle, dropping hints of a broken home story that eventually comes together as something awe-inspiring. To say anything more would be criminal, as the shocking reveal is absolutely brilliant in execution, but those who appreciate a very specific piece of iconic horror cinema will likely celebrate Kusama’s bold storytelling choices.
That said, beyond the story at hand, “Her Only Living Son” is fantastic, mixing hauntingly simplistic visuals with poignantly dramatic performances and brooding atmosphere. Christina Kirk is phenomenal in the lead role of a tormented mother, selling the tragedy of the situation just as well as she sells her own sense of fear. But Kusama cements the good will from THE INVITATION with “Her Only Living Son,” and her final shot is so harrowing and heartbreaking that it’s only fitting to call her segment the highlight of XX.
Overall, XX goes three-for-four (or, if you count Carrillo’s wrap-around, four-for-five), showcasing several notable voices who will no doubt make their way through the boy’s club that genre filmmaking can so often be. While XX doesn’t quite make top of its class, this anthology should by no means be written off either, and with any luck, horror fans will hopefully not only see the feature debuts of these five fierce female filmmakers, but another dose of XX in the near future.
XX (Sundance Film Festival Review)