1 out of 5
Directed by: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama
As any horror anthology fan can attest – and as I’m sure anyone who’s experienced any kind of anthology would agree – they are, nigh by default, a mixed bag. Unless you’re dealing with something that ties each entry together with a link that encourages or guarantees your interest in every part, there will almost always be winners and losers in the bunch. A best case scenario, then, is for the wins to outweigh the losses, or, perhaps more modestly, for everything to achieve a middleground level of quality so that you can say: “It wasn’t bad.”
A worst case scenario is when everything is bad.
XX’s pitch is to line up female directors and let them lose on horror shorts. There’s a subtext to that, that we’ll get a female point of view in a generally male (and male gaze) dominated genre. The flick falls way short of that, unfortunately, and then falls even shorter by executing four diminishing-returns bits.
The set opens with one of the more initially intriguing entries, Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, based on a Jack Ketchum tale. A voiceover narration from mother Natalie Brown speaks to the difficulties of day-to-day motherhood, and then we witness her on train with son and daughter. A disfigured man carries a Christmas present; the son asks to see what’s inside, and given a peek, goes pale. His behavior changes thereafter. Vuckovic milks the vagueness of this for a while, but Brown’s incredibly flat reaction to it – while likely a purposeful decision – feels at odds with events, especially given a poorly sequenced “HERE’S THE POINT TO THIS” dream that her character has. This is sort of the final nail in the short’s coffin, sealed by a refusal to build on the concept, up to a shoulder-shrug ending. It’s well shot, and the one gore moment is well done, but the Is That It? feeling only gets worse from here out.
Annie Clark’s The Birthday Party is probably the most well-rounded bit, and gives Melanie Lynskey a chance for some physical comedy… but not much else. The entry is a riff on Weekend At Bernie’s, essentially, and like those movies, once the novelty of the gag wears off… Clark also chose to excise most of the background for sake of runtime, which makes sense, except there are just enough details to make us wonder Why about some things, which undermines the comedic potential. And that it concludes with an eye-rolly punchline sours any good will its visuals might’ve maintained.
Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall is a creature feature. It’s also the worst bit of the four because it zooms through everything to get to the creature, and then wants to act like we’ve been through the prerequisite “getting to know you” character setups that would give us have some grounding with them before they’re killed, as well as assuming that one zoom in on some mystic text is enough background to justify the monster. Sure. There’s a nifty upside-down shot.
Lastly, Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son squanders an excellent setup – single mum Christina Kirk suspects her almost-18 son is forming some nasty habits, while creepy townfolk nod approvingly – on a way too early reveal and then a budget-less and disappointing ending. Kusama’s visual sensibilities in the beginning are fantastic, lending the short a wonderfully ominous vibe; thus it’s even a bigger fall when the thing starts to collapse half way through.
And I suppose that’s more the reason for XX’s outright failure: the concept, and (almost) each short, offering a lot of up front promise, only to entirely disappoint. So to amend my hinting opening statement: it’s not through and through bad, but it leaves a really bad memory in its wake, which, alas, is worse.
(Yes, this also applies to the linking animated sequence, directed by Sofia Carrillo. It’s gorgeously creepy, and certainly the best part, visually, of the whole show, but wanderingly builds to a meh conclusion when I almost would’ve preferred it remained plotless.)