XX – an all-female directed horror anthology – couldn’t push against genre representation at a better time. You’d think those involved would come out fiery, focused and full of appropriate rage given current gender voicelessness. This was a chance for horror to champion female filmmakers, yet assertions are tepid at best. Even past the failed settling of gender scores, XX lacks horror establishment of the basest engagement. Only one chapter stands out (victorious because of competition), while three more efforts drag their feet without enthusiasm. No statement is made, no mic is dropped and no lasting message lingers past the credits. Enjoy another mixed bag of spooky stories that do no bumping in any night.
Please note, such disinterest isn’t because my feeble male brain can’t comprehend a different perspective. Three of the four main characters are mothers, all caught in family dilemmas. That’s not where my disconnection stems. As a horror fan, XX moves too quickly for me through stories that needed either more fleshing out or a bit more convincing. A starving family for abandonment’s sake, an anxious mother who vies for her child’s approval at any cost, an outdoor slaughterfest for the hell of it, another mother who cannot let go – all womanly identifications (minus the vacation from hell?), yet none achieve anthology perfection. My qualms are not with chromosome indifference, but quality, experience and scripted completion.
This no-boys-allowed party starts with Jovanka Vuckovic’s adaptation of “The Box,” a Jack Ketchum story. Danny – played by Peter DaCunha – nosily peers inside a stranger’s wrapped Christmas gift. Whatever he sees causes Danny to stop eating, even though his family prepares delicious, mother-watering meals. It’s of no use. Pizza and wings, spaghetti and meatballs – Danny won’t touch it. Then Jenny (Peyton Kennedy) follows suit. Then husband Robert (Jonathan Watton). Susan (Natalie Brown) can do nothing while her family wastes away, all poisoned by the same secret.
“The Box” is a stinger about our human condition; consumption by the unknown. A child’s curiosity turns into a hungerless plague, as Susan can only watch as her loved ones shrink in size. One nasty dream teases what Susan would give for salvation, but Vuckovic’s story is rigid and under-seasoned otherwise. It’s the kind of infinite, existential dread without an answer, powerless to blink-and-it’s-over feelings. Don’t expect any answers, or a tie to Richard Kelly’s feature of the same name. You’ll never know what’s in the box, Brad Pitt – not that you need to, but most will be left yearning for closure.
Next up is Annie Clark’s – aka musician St. Vincent’s – “The Birthday Party,” about a father who dies on his daughter’s birthday. Mother Mary (Melanie Lynskey) doesn’t want to spoil little Lucy’s fiesta, so she hides her husband’s body. Early guests and a busy housekeeper (Sheila Vand) almost expose Mary’s situation, until a singing panda-gram gives her an idea.
I grasp what “The Birthday Party” wants to be, but Clark just never gets there. Dark comedics attempt to traumatize 7-year-olds at a birthday party – who are wearing weird costumes like a toilet and ice cream cone (?!) – but never once is “horror” teased. Lynskey exudes desperate quirkiness, yet Clark’s vision is blunt and focused on song. Everything pushes towards a table sequence tuned to blackened rock vibes, all without intrigue or excitement. A mother finds herself so preoccupied with maternal instincts that she hides a dead body in plain sight. Uh?
“Don’t Fall,” Roxanne Benjamin’s third entry, stands as my favorite of the bunch. In it, a native curse dooms four backpackers who trespass on untouched desert terrain. Gretchen (Breeda Wool), while exploring rock fixtures, finds an ancient drawing that can’t be deciphered. The gang thinks nothing of it, and retreats to their campsite. That’s when Gretchen turns into a demonic murderer, complete with a possessed transformation that bastardizes her human form.
It might be a simple formula – two guys, two girls, one vacation gone wrong – but Benjamin works some chilling shots into a gory little creature package. It’s low-budget, smash-and-slash simplicity, but the likes of Angela Trimbur and Morgan Krantz bring us back to comforting genre times. Wool is decked-out in practical FX makeup that reminds of a Witch from Left 4 Dead, as she jumps around tearing her friends apart. That one shot when she appears in the RV’s broken back-window? *kisses curled fingers with Italian enthusiasm* Beautiful. “Don’t Fall” is the jolt of energy that XX needs, but it comes and goes with fleeting escapism.
Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” is the final mini-nightmare, this one about an overprotective mother. Cora (Christina Kirk) is constantly on the run with her son, Andy (Kyle Allen). Her husband is an out-of-the-picture Hollywood actor. Cora notices that her son is developing sinister habits – like, pre-serial-killer tendencies – but she loves him unconditionally. Then his 18th birthday comes, where both mother and son are faced with a choice. One that could damn their souls for eternity.
As timidly as “The Box” brings us into XX, “Her Only Living Son” sleepwalks us out. Kusama’s tale is one of love, and the trappings of a future serial killer. Satanic undertones drive a relationship that’s never just an overbearing mother and her animal-murdering son, until both meet a “father” who’s never seen. It’s the most cinematic production, but Kusama’s cult-soul-selling-parental-paranoia is slow, sluggish and never deceptive. Grinning characters hold an air of friendliness, until Andy’s birthday ties together notes of nefariousness and red herrings. Think of this as Kusama’s homage to a Twilight Zone episode, except soapy dramatics clog the short’s inner horror workings.
Altogether, XX underwhelms as a female-first horror initiative. “Don’t Fall” is the only segment that manages to find its pulse, while others like “The Box” and “The Birthday Party” come and go without much notoriety. As most horror anthologies go, there are highs and lows – but XX is especially volatile. Gender statements aside, there’s little to fear, grasp or fall in love with. An antique wrap-around segment makes clever use of grungy stop-motion creeps, yet no segment feels tethered to collective corruption. Structure is sporadic (random title cards), pacing falters and sullen bookends influence our most important impressions. I’m all for an anthology horror film featuring only female talents, and can only wish for more XX entries – ones that improve upon a jagged start.
XX is a mundane horror anthology at best, and a slow-burn experience that never reaches a boil at its worst.