XX (2017)

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“Four short horror films that are directed and written by women.” — IMDb

XX is a particularly significant anthology to me due to not only the fact that each of the four segments are written and directed by women, but one of the segments — entitled The Birthday Party — was Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent‘s, directorial debut (I’ve been a fan of hers since Marry Me back in 2007).

It makes sense to review each short on its own, since they are all so unique (and each a work in itself), but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed the stop-motion creepiness that tied it all together, directed by Sofia Carrillo. All of her work shares the same combination of unsettling and yet beautiful, and with this particular one I really loved the face on the dollhouse, which was eerily very human.

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The Box, based on a short story by Jack Ketchum and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, is maybe the weakest of the bunch. Parents Susan (played by Natalie Brown) and Robert (Jonathan Watton) are disturbed after their son, Danny (Peter DaCunha) stops eating after peeking into a man’s mysterious box on the subway. Things get worse when he tells his sister, Jenny (Peyton Kennedy), what was in the box and she loses her appetite, too. Eventually dad is let in on the secret and things end in unexpected tragedy.

I don’t know, this one just… never quite got there for me. It’s maybe a bit too vague? I’m also no doctor but if Danny stopped eating before Christmas (we can presume since the box he peeked into on the subway was a Christmas present), it seems crazy that he didn’t die until I think either late January or early February, but maybe people can go without food for longer than I was aware. EITHER WAY, the clunky dialogue and mediocre acting (I actually liked the kids better than the adults) didn’t help move along the fairly undercooked (see what I did there?) storyline. It just felt hollow to me. Not to mention the mom was completely unbelievable — she didn’t seem like she gave a shit the whole time her son wasn’t eating. The contrast between the dad getting overly frustrated at times and her just shrugging the whole thing off was infuriating.

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The Birthday Party, written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark and directed by Annie Clark, was maybe my favorite. Mary (the awesome Melanie Lynskey) is throwing a birthday party for her daughter, Lucy (Sanai Victoria), when she discovers her husband, back early from a business trip but mysteriously dead in his office chair. In an effort to pretend like everything’s dandy, she spends the day trying to hide his body, only to have it revealed at the worst possible moment.

This one was just… great. It’s not at all a traditional horror short, but rather delivers a sense of fear in the form of us holding our breath the entire time, just hoping she won’t get caught dragging (literal) dead weight around the house — the tension is sky high. But the real dark humor comes at the end, with the perfect slow-mo scene (with Annie Clark’s own music to accompany it) of numb collapse followed by utter chaos. I also enjoyed Sheila Vand making an appearance as the housekeeper, Carla (Vand starred in one of my favorite movies ever, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, also by a female director).

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Don’t Fall, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, provides the most in the way of a more standard action- and blood-filled horror short. Four friends head out into the desert for a camping trip when they encounter some petroglyphs that seem innocently neat at first but soon prove to be much more sinister.

I felt that this one had some of the most natural acting — the four seemed to truly be friends and comfortable with each other — but the story felt weak. I know it’s tough to squeeze too much of an in-depth storyline into a mere 20 minutes or less, but this one just felt like it had too many questions unanswered. It also relied a bit too heavily on jump scares, action stunts (like someone being thrown through the camper window), and monster makeup (that was just okay), none of which impressed me. Really, the creepiest moment was very understated, when Gretchen’s elongated fingers were curling around the edge of the newly broken window… shudder. This one didn’t do a whole lot for me, but the more natural dialogue put it above The Box.

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Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, was easily the most complex of the four. Kyle Allen, who plays the spawn of Satan son, is a dead ringer for a young Heath Ledger. But, more to the point, I’m pretty impressed with how much she was able to fit into such a small timeframe. There’s some serious familial emotions — including Cora (Christina Kirk) showing some genuine fear mixed with ferocious protection. I loved that this one took the idea of the “horrors of motherhood” and amplified it, making it into the worst possible horror imaginable, in addition to showing a heated battle between free will and destiny. It was interesting and while it suffered at times — the mailman’s enthusiastic speech was a bit much — it was the only one I would have been interested to see as a feature length film.

Overall I thought the films tied in well together. It falls short at being a classic anthology, but two great ones out of four is not a bad ratio by any stretch. I’d definitely be interested to see any follow-ups!

Rating: 6/10 | Director: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Jovanka Vuckovic | Writer: Jack Ketchum (short story), Jovanka Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama | Music: Jefferson Friedman, Carly Paradis, St. Vincent, The Gifted, Craig Wedren | Cinematography: Ian Anderson, Tarin Anderson, Patrick Cady | Starring: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Peyton Kennedy, Ron Lea, Michael Dyson, Melanie Lynskey, Seth Duhame, Sanai Victoria, Sheila Vand, Casey Adams, Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Christina Kirk, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle

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