Written by: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama
Directed by: Jack Ketchum (original story) Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama
Starring: Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, and Christina Kirk
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Four deadly tales by four killer women.
It goes without saying that women’s voices are essential in any capacity, including horror, where they’ve largely been constrained to the margins behind the scenes, as Hollywood has been wont to do in general throughout much of its history. What’s especially frustrating in this case, however, is that these voices aren’t just vital—they’re uniquely qualified to explore and ruminate upon the horrors of the world, a fact that’s been evident throughout history since they’ve been at the forefront of popularizing everything from werewolves to science fiction to the pretty much the entire Gothic genre. Women did all of that, yet their contributions still have been undervalued to the point that they feel like disruptors whenever they are afforded a platform in a genre they’ve been instrumental in shaping. Case in point: XX, an all-female anthology that feels radical because it’s solely dedicated to providing that platform. Calling it a “gimmick” is dismissive; no, XX is a mission statement and a potent reminder that these voices are just as vital as ever.
It’s an exciting collection of talent too, one that’s comprised of emerging, surprising, and established talent working through various modes and tones. As such, it’s got an eclectic, grab-bag feel, making it a somewhat loose anthology. Save for the wonderfully ghoulish stop-motion interstitials by Sofia Carrillo, there’s no conventional framing device to speak of—instead, it creates the impression of rollicking through a haunted house, where each mysterious corner reveals some ghastly new attraction.
Not that XX is completely preoccupied with delivering such thrills, mind you. That much is obvious right out of the gate, when Jovanka Vuckovic adapts Jack Ketchum’s “The Box,” a bleak, ghastly piece of work wherein a suburban family encounters an inexplicable, heartbreaking horror. A Yuletide train ride goes horribly awry for Susan (Natalie Brown) after her son Danny (Peter DaCunha) asks an adjacent stranger (Michael Dyson, whose nightmarish visage is haunting) what he’s carrying in a box. He insists it’s just a gift and even implores the curious boy to have a peek, an invitation that’s met with cryptic horror. Left virtually speechless, Danny refuses to discuss the box’s contents and consequently loses his appetite for days on end. Soon, Julia is helpless as Danny’s condition spreads through the rest of her family like some impossible virus.
“The Box” is inherently unsettling thanks to the warped, tragic nature of Ketchum’s source material. However, Vuckovic deftly accentuates it, drawing out the unspeakable horror of the situation through Brown’s affecting performance and an oppressively somber tone. Everything about the mise en scene is soaked in melancholy, from the dim lighting to the sleek, cavernous spaces of the family’s house. Even the Christmas tree feels like a hopelessly incongruent source of cheer, fighting a losing battle against the bleak evil permeating this once happy home. Brown, however, truly captures the hopelessness of the ordeal with a subdued turn as a woman who’s watching her life spiral out of her control. Seemingly unable to process it, she has horrific nightmares (yielding a show-stopping gore sequence that captures Ketchum’s penchant for couching macabre grisliness within suburbia) when she’s not sleepwalking through the complete and utter collapse of her family, leading to a grim, gut-wrenching final note that reminds us that nothing is quite as horrible as insatiable desperation.
But just as that note starts to linger, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) interrupts it with “The Birthday Party,” which doubles as the anthology equivalent of a record scratch. While it seemingly mines similar territory by having a mother (Melanie Lynskey) confront a death in her family, it does so much more playfully, as Clark (and co-writer Roxanne Benjamin) lace this tale with black humor. That seems almost impossible at first, when this poor, beleaguered mother is tasked with throwing her daughter a birthday party, an already stressful task that becomes even more so when she discovers her husband has passed away in his office. Her maternal instincts kick in, albeit in unconventional fashion: determined not to let this turn of events ruin her daughter’s big day, she goes to great, potentially traumatizing lengths to conceal the truth.
Clark counts as the surprising presence here, though I guess it’s not that unexpected given her musical talents. The playfulness often found in her music reveals itself here in a wicked mean streak that becomes more pronounced as the segment builds to a riotously fucked-up climax that somehow dares to make a joke out of childhood trauma. Lynskey is game throughout, juggling this mother’s desperation and love during this parental nightmare, which becomes even more feverishly unhinged at every turn. If this short is any indication, I hope Clark manages to be a mainstay in the horror genre: "The Birthday Party” isn’t just the standout segment in XX—it also marks the arrival of an exciting new voice that I hope we hear more from in the future.
Co-writer Benjamin (who hatched V/H/S and Southbound) makes her own directorial debut with “Don’t Fall.” The leanest, meanest segment in XX, it spins a familiar, grisly tale around a quartet of hikers who trespass onto a land that’s forbidden in more ways than one. Not only has the local government deemed it off-limits, but some ancient, cryptic Native American markings also hint that the land is cursed. The group discovers this in horrifying fashion when one of them becomes possessed and starts terrorizing the others in vicious fashion. “Don’t Fall” arrives as a blast of kinetic energy, combining the boisterous “party gone wrong” vibe of stuff like Night of the Demons with raw, unflinching violence. It’s old hat, perhaps, but it’s a skillfully executed display of gore, make-up effects, and lively photography buoyed by just enough character work to leave an impression.
Closing out XX is Karyn Kusama, rightfully withheld for the main event slot given her prominence within the genre. “Her Only Living Son” arguably boasts the anthology’s most intriguing segment, as it’s centered around the fragile relationship between single mother Cora (Christina Kirk) and her unruly son, Andy (Kyle Allen). A few days removed from his 18th birthday, Andy has grown even rebellious, if not downright sinister: at her latest meeting with school officials, she learns that he viciously tore a girl’s fingertips in a frightening incident. Even more disconcerting, however, is the administration’s reaction: rather than punish Andy, they suggest that his victim be removed from school. Bewildered, Cora listens on as they insist that her son holds too much potential, and it must be nurtured.
But to what ends? That’s the question that lingers throughout the segment as Cora’s encounters become increasingly bizarre. And while the answer to that question is satisfying enough (let’s just say “Her Only Living Son” imagines what it might have been like for Rosemary Woodhouse to raise her baby), Kusama doesn’t quite stick the landing. Everything leading up to the closing moments creates a terrific, conspiratorial atmosphere, but the climax peters out with a frustrating, ambiguous ending that leaves you shrugging. Of all the segments in XX, you sense that this one would benefit the most from a longer runtime, one that would allow its secrets to unfold in more graceful fashion and resolve on a more satisfying note.
Even if XX does end on a slightly disappointing note, it’s still a largely successful collection whose strength rests in its eclecticism, at least in terms of tone. Ranging from genuinely glum to raucously entertaining, it’s a colorful addition to the anthology scene, all while keeping its femininity at the forefront. Much of XX is dedicated to maternal anxieties, with each of the directors taking a decidedly different approach. If not for “Don’t Fall,” the anthology would find a complete thematic unity, though it should be noted that even that segment has its own metaphorical implications about a woman having her own body hijacked for horrific purposes.
Of course, even if XX weren’t overtly feminine, it’d still represent a triumph in representation, not to mention a much-needed shock to the system. At times, horror tends to feel like too much of a boys’ club, and this film upends that notion by providing a stark reminder that women are more than capable of leaving an indelible mark on this genre. Here’s hoping this is just the beginning of similarly minded efforts.
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