★★★1/2 Out of ★★★★★
Four uniquely female takes on horror.
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, stylistically, they all are very different from each other. With at least three of the films, there is a very deliberately distaff perspective on horror. I will warn you that because the stories are so compact, that in order to accurately describe some of these films, there will be some plot spoilers.
The Box ★★★★, written and directed by Jovanka Vukovic
The first story is the one that I found the most compelling. Jovanka Vukovic put a mirror to the fear of “Am I a good mother?” I suspect that this segment will haunt any mother who watches it. The story revolves around Susan Jacobs (played by Natalie Brown) and her happy family, riding the subway (Toronto?) home during the Christmas holiday. There is a strange man with a gift-wrapped box riding the train next to them, and her boy Danny asks to see what is in the box. Let’s just say he shouldn’t have done that. The boy’s behavior takes a dramatic shift, and he refuses to eat at dinner time, driving a wedge between the parents as how to handle the situation. In the span of half an hour, Vukovic presses all the buttons of parenting dread. How hard do I push when my kid misbehaves? What do I do when my kid won’t tell me what’s going on? How do I stop something really horrible from happening? How could I miss the telltale signs? Notable to this story is that there is a food design consultant. The food looks AMAZING.
The Birthday Party ★★ 1/2, written and directed by Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
OK, this one was weird. I am a huge St. Vincent fan, but her music is much more coherent than her films. I don’t know that I really understood anything that was happening in this story or why. It played out like a cross between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Weekend at Bernies. Melanie Lynski plays an overwhelmed mom, Mary, who is preparing a birthday for her strange little kid…. in what appears to be a Halloween-Birthday mashup, as there will be costumes. The child, curiously an African American, with Caucasian parents (adopted? I’m guessing so) dresses in a black M&M costume. The bulk of the story involves Mary discovering that her husband (I think) died overnight in his office, and she spends much of the rest of the birthday preparations trying to lug his body around as if everything was OK, everything culminating with a birthday celebration and the looming possibility that the dead dad is discovered. Repeated viewings might clear some things up for me, but probably not. There is a strong surreal streak that runs through the film, and St. Vincent liked to sprinkle in jump scare sounds, without any jump scare to associate it with. It’s a vibrant avant-garde art piece that I really am not sure qualifies as horror.
Don’t Fall ★★, written directed by Roxanne Benjamin
The opposite side of The Birthday Party is Don’t Fall. This is a short film that feels very familiar. Campers go out in the wilderness, tempt fate by messing around in an area with some petroglyphs that they can’t comprehend. The group gets stoned, and generally disrespects the camps site. One of the campers gets possessed by a native spirit and turns on the rest of the campers. Seen it, been there, done that. Not really impressed.
Her Only Living Son ★★★★, written and directed by Karyn Kusama
This was a powerful short story. The fear in this case is, “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 18, 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 was fantastic. I hope to see more from Kusama and Kirk in the future.
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 in Antonia Bird (Ravenous), Oscar winner Katheryn Bigelow (Near Dark), and Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) but I would still opine that 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.