The first all female-directed anthology of horror shorts has finally landed, and it’s a diverse little group, with stories that range from slow-burner psychological thrillers to frenetically paced gorefests. Collectively, they’re stronger together and offer a good variety of terror. Sandwiched between the segments are creepy, gothic animations created by Sofia Carillo involving a doll head connected to a dollhouse, executing various tasks (the importance of which only these seemingly possessed objects can know). It’s a disquieting circuitous exercise that creates a jittery tension and wipes the slate clean between the different efforts. XX is a strong first collection of horror projects by women that favors quality over quantity. Here’s a brief review of each:
Directed and written by Jovanka Vuckovic (former editor of Rue Morgue magazine)
The mysterious contents of a box glimpsed by a boy on a subway ride are the catalyst for the implosion of a mild-mannered family. What the small boy is shown by a stranger completely kills his appetite. His slow, bizarre starvation perplexes and infuriates his loved ones. Slightly stilted acting by everyone except the mother (Natalie Brown) throws a wrench into an otherwise smooth, flowing tale, but the makeup effects for the hollowed-out cheekbones of the child, as well as the rapid destruction of the family unit, is alarmingly effective. A pervasive helplessness infects the story until it’s clear that the mother’s mindset is what should be dissected, and her search to regain a sense of control is paramount. This focus on a woman’s search for meaning while trying to prevent outright familial disaster in the midst of unbridled chaos is a nice bookend to the last part of the anthology.
“The Birthday Party”
Directed by Annie Clark (also known as the singer St. Vincent)
Melanie Lynskey is a woman bent on being impeccable in every way while preparing for her child’s birthday party. Uptight and proper, she’ll do anything to avoid an embarrassing upheaval of her best laid plans. Lynskey’s prim demeanor is tested by death, and soon she is crawling, hiding and bribing herself out of a morbid situation. The bright colors of the mother’s outfit, mixed with the sleek, modern architecture that encapsulates her up-until-now perfectly ordered life, make “The Birthday Party” a mostly aesthetic and sometimes enjoyable exercise. The odd rambunctiousness of the pace plays well with the oddities around the house (including a grim friend dressed all in black, mulling about). “The Birthday Party” isn’t so much concerned about the audience’s dread, but instead more invested in the tragicomedy of this woman’s life as it swiftly unravels.
Directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound)
Easily the outright scariest of the group, “Don’t Fall” lifts off with humor and then plunges straight into the horror with little time to breathe. Four friends out camping come upon some ambiguous pictograms scrawled on a rock. Relationships are established with one-off lines, and the risks are immediately made clear. Forces beyond them have already taken control, and “Don’t Fall” is an unrelenting and gory ride to the bloody finish. Visually, this segment nails down the immediate danger that the campers are in, and adds some needed energetic spice to the anthology.
“Her Only Living Son”
Directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation)
Like an extension of Rosemary’s Baby, “Her Only Living Son” deals with a mother’s unconditional devotion to her son, who was given to her by way of The Prince of Darkness. She has secreted him away for many years, trying to keep him apart from those who want to worship the boy. The sacrifices that the mother has had to make to save her son from himself and ominous others are noble, but the steady nature of the writing seems to belong to a feature. The end is truncated in such a way that the subject of a woman trying to stop her boy from turning into an ultimate evil needs a longer form to flesh out more of lead Christina Kirk’s nuanced acting. “Her Only Living Son” doesn’t make for a taut finish to XX, but is a careful, emotional tale of an unfathomable fate.