When announced late last year that Magnet Releasing & XYZ Film were releasing a horror anthology with an all-female lineup of filmmakers, I was determined to be there opening day. Much to my good fortune, I wound up seeing it even earlier.
XX is a quartet of short films, each distinct in tone and style, celebrating all facets of horror as brought to life by some insanely talented women.
The film begins with Jovanka Vuckovic‘s The Box, which is based on a story by Jack Ketchum. For me, Ketchum’s name is synonymous with stories involving horrific violence inflicted on women (see The Girl Next Store or The Woman). It’s a shock to see his name up on the screen for a project such as this one. In a surprising twist, Vuckovic offers psychological trauma instead of physical on her protagonist Susan (Natalie Brown), a wife and mother forced to watch her family mysteriously waste away without explanation. There’s a bit of shocking gore, but the true horror comes from what Susan and her family endures and where Vuckovic chooses to leave Susan at the end.
Next up is Annie Clark (a.k.a the musician St. Vincent) with her directorial debut The Birthday Cake. Indisputably the crowd-pleaser of the quartet, the film follows the increasingly exacerbated Mary (Melanie Lynskey) as she frantically tries to prepare for her daughter’s birthday party while faced with a huge and macabre obstacle. The dark subject matter is juxtaposed with humor and a vibrant color palate, which effectively makes the material even more delightfully unsettling. Lynskey once again shows herself to be an actress of immense talent, capable of garnering a spectrum of emotions from audiences with her nuanced performance. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, to its credit, and the pay-off is pitch perfect.
Roxanne Benjamin is third with Don’t Fall, a new take on the genre trope of young people vacationing somewhere they shouldn’t and the evil they awaken. A creepy creature and visceral thrills elevate this short but, overall, it falls somewhat short compared the other offerings in the anthology. It’s well-acted and does everything right, but I couldn’t shake the feeling it’s covering well-trodden ground. To her credit, Benjamin swiftly builds a world and mythology that leaves audiences wanting a return visit. There’s something ancient and evil out there, and Benjamin has displayed how much fun it is to play in the dark.
Karyn Kusama closes out the anthology with her installment, Her Only Living Son. In an incredibly bold move, she has produced a sequel, albeit unofficial, to one of the greatest horror films of all time. To say which film will ruin part of the fun but, as soon as it dawned on me where she was going with the short, a large grin filled my face. To see Kusama take such an esteemed property and make it her own is incredible. On one level, there’s the audacity in her getting away with it. On the next, Kusama truly does justice to the lead character (played by Christina Kirk here), empowering her like she never was in the original film. The short comes off a beautiful coda to the original while also standing firmly on its own legs. Some might consider it a tribute to the original, others might find it an act of thievery, both creativity and with regards to ownership of the intellectual property. It’s both, and bless Kusama for getting away with it.
The shorts are framed by animated sequences from award-winning animator Sofia Carrillo. Simultaneously creepy and beautiful, these sequences could hold their own against Jan Švankmajer’s best work. While they are not necessarily thematically linked to the shorts they surround, they come together to form their own essential piece of XX‘s tapestry.
XX is a much needed and perfectly executed horror anthology. It opens in theaters and VOD platforms on February 17, 20017.