Canada/US | 2017 | Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic/Annie Clark/Roxanne Benjamin/Karyn Kasuma
Logline: Four short horror films, with female central characters, written and directed by women.
Devised as a indirect celebration of women filmmakers - the xx chromosome - within the horror genre, this anthology of four tales of the macabre and supernatural is more interesting when looking at the individual short films, rather than the case of the whole movie being greater than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of project that would’ve looked great on paper, but the end product doesn’t quite live up to its promise, or expectations.
First up is Jovanka Vuckivic’s “The Box”, which she’s adapted from a short story by cult horror writer Jack Ketchum. Jovanka has made three shorts and she is the associate producer on XX. She was editor for over six years on the horror in film and culture magazine Rue Morgue. Her segment is the strongest, certainly it has the most intriguing premise.
A mother, Susan (Natalie Jacobs) is returning home on the subway with her two children, Danny (Peter DaCunha) and Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). A creepy-looking stranger (Michael Dyson), with a large red box on his lap, sits adjacent to them. Danny pesters the man as to what’s in the box. The man agrees to show him, and gently lifts the lid a little, so that Danny can peer inside. Whatever was inside “infects” Danny. Now Danny is no longer hungry, he no longer wants to eat, much to the concern of his parents, especially his father Robert (Jonathan Watton), who is determined to get the truth from his son.
The tone and suspense of "The Box" is its strongest elements, but it also features a very gory set-piece that seems to be the climax of the short, seemingly its end, but the narrative wanders into an ending that doesn’t really reward the way it should. I’ve not read the original short story, but the short film had a kind of Twilight Zone meets Roald Dahl feel.
In “The Birthday Party” wealthy Mary (Melanie Lynskey) is preparing for her precocious young daughter’s bash in the afternoon. Trouble is, her husband is dead in the office, and Mary does not want her maid Carla (Sheila Vand) discovering the situation. What does a mother do? Well, Mary knows full well that show must go on. Guests and their respective parents will be arriving shortly. There’s not a moment to lose. Just then, the doorbell rings. It’s a birthday telegram in the guise of a young man in a panda bear suit.
Directed by Annie Clark (who has a successful career as hipster, indie pop star St. Vincent), and co-written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin, this short story sticks out like a pleasantly sore thumb. Not really horror, more like a particularly macabre “tale of the unexpected” a la Roald Dahl (again). There is a deep, darkly comic streak that runs through this short, which has the nail of pitch black comedy rammed into it with the inter-titles at segment’s end.
Third up is “Don’t Fall” (another of these “meta” titles that really don’t agree with me), written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, who was one of the producer/directors on another recent horror anthology Southbound. This is easily the most conventional of the four segments, pedestrian even, as it relays the last hours of a bunch of hikers who find some Native American rock wall paintings, and later that evening all fall prey to some kind of marauding wendigo.
Finally there is Karyn Kasuma’s “Her Only Living Son”, which focuses on a mother’s increasing anxiety over her son’s behaviour as he celebrates his 18th birthday. It becomes quickly apparent that the lad’s father was not of human flesh and blood, and with the teenager now a young man, his true calling does not come from his mama, Cora (Christina Kirk), but instead from something that most likely clomps around on hooves and has horns sprouting from his head. There’ll be tears before bedtime, and there’ll most likely be blood.
The segments that impressed me the most were “The Box” and “The Birthday Party”. “Don’t Fall” had nothing remarkable about it at all, and whilst I loved Kasuma’s “The Invitation” feature, “Her Only Living Son” wasn't very menacing, and lacked a punchy ending. The Jan Svankmajer-style stop-animation used to book-end the segments, as well as interludes in between, looks cool, but it has nothing to do with any of the segments, so as a wrap-around it feels tenuous, pointless. And, why is the title of each segment credited twice on screen, that’s just annoying. The filmmakers are talented, but XX feels oddly rushed, scrambled together with little thought to its cohesion as a whole.
It's curious to note that when the project was first announced the directors onboard were Jennifer Lynch, Jen and Sylvia Soska, Mary Harron, and Kasuma. For whatever reason Lynch, the Twisted Twins, and Harron dropped out, and Clark and Benjamin were recruited. Even the posters still have Lynch's name attached.