Who are some of the most promising women directing horror movies today? XX, as in the X-X female chromosome, is an anthology movie comprised of four horror stories written and directed by women with female leads. Not surprisingly, for an anthology feature, they all are stylistically very different. With at least three of the films, there is a very deliberately distaff perspective on horror. Spoiler warning: Because of the compact nature of these films, some plot points will be revealed.
The first story is the most compelling one. Jovanka Vukovic put a mirror to the fear of “Am I a good mother?” This segment will haunt any caring mother who watches it. Susan Jacobs (Natalie Brown) and her happy family are riding the subway home during the Christmas holiday. A strange man with a gift-wrapped box rides the train next to them. Young Danny asks to see what is in the box. He shouldn’t have done that. Danny refuses to eat at dinner time, driving a wedge between the parents as to how to handle the situation. And then, the condition spreads to the father and the daughter. Vukovic presses all the parental dread buttons. How hard do I push when my kid misbehaves? What do I do when my kid won’t tell me what’s happening? How could I miss the telltale signs? True existential dread.
OK, this one was weird. I am a huge St. Vincent fan, but her music is more coherent than her films. The film plays out like a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Weekend at Bernie’s. Melanie Lynskey plays Mary, an overwhelmed mom who is preparing a Halloween/birthday party for her strange little kid. Unfortunately, her husband just died in his office. Seemingly unconcerned about his death, She lugs his body from room to room as if everything is OK. The situation culminates with a birthday celebration and the looming possibility that the dead dad is discovered. Comedy! A strong surreal streak that runs through the film. For example, St. Vincent liked to sprinkle jump scare sounds without any jump scare to associate it with the noise. Odd. In the end, this is a vibrant avant-garde art piece that I am not sure qualifies as horror.
Don’t Fall ★★, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.
The opposite side of the artistic scale from The Birthday Party is Don’t Fall. This short film feels very familiar. Campers go out in the wilderness and tempt fate by messing around in an area with some cryptic petroglyphs that they can’t comprehend. Even though the petroglyphs suggest that this place is sacred and full of dark magic, they chalk it up as mere folklore and pay it no further heed. After settling in for the night, the group gets stoned and disrespects the campsite. Not surprisingly, the petroglyph prophecy comes true, as one of the campers gets possessed by a native spirit and turns on the rest of the campers. We have all seen it, been there, done that. Not impressed.
Her Only Living Son ★★★★, written and directed by Karyn Kusama
Her Only Living Son showcases the fear of “My child is growing into an adult, and I’m not ready to let him go… and he might be a devil.” Christina Kirk does an excellent job as Cora, a mom on the run, and having to deal with her increasingly petulant teenage son, who is turning eighteen and about to become a man. Or perhaps, something more than man. As the story develops, she firmly holds onto the love of her son while at the same time trying to reconcile her fears of something seriously dark underway. The pacing and unfurling of this story felt just right for the short format, and her editing choices and close-up work were fantastic. Kusama directed the excellent feature, The Invitation, and I hope to see more from Kusama and Kirk.
I applaud XX for the assembly of talent they put together. And though the anthology is a bit uneven, it was all worth watching. Also not to be missed are the creepy puppet animations that transition between the stories. (So creepy!) The horror genre has a few notable directors. Some of the most notable are Antonia Bird (Ravenous), Oscar winner Katheryn Bigelow (Near Dark), and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook). And yet, horror is a genre dominated by men, and this is a great little celebration of what women can do if they decide to go to the darkness in film.