Sundance anthology XX showcases a quartet of effective low-budget horror shorts but the real story here lies in its clever title. A chromosomal tip of the hat, the film’s name refers to the thread that unites the collection of pieces. You see, the talent behind this anthological haunt features an unusual twist – each segment was directed by a woman. Though horror (moreso than any other genre) has given women the limelight ever since the days of Hitchcock, with more leading women than leading men, the Hollywood directorial status quo has remained firmly in place. That is, even though the chicks may hog the spotlight within the genre, more often than naught there’s still a dude behind the camera shaping the majority of the product.
Now that’s not to say that female directors haven’t made their mark on the genre. Outstanding Australian festival favorite The Babadook is among the most popular horror hits of the last decade and was directed by first time female director Jennifer Kent. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night broke more than the gender boundary with its genre-defying Iranian vampiric western take on far East feminism. Karyn Kusama, one of the five directors assembled to craft XX, delivered one of last year’s absolute best horror films with The Invitation.
And though the genre has seen an uptick in participation more recently, their (limited) inclusion isn’t anything new. Mary Harron’s one-hit-wonder American Psycho is just as poignant and popular as it was in 2000 while the great Kathryn Bigelow, who it should be noted stands as the only woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing, speared the mature vampire film Near Dark. So why is it that five gals gathering to do their take on a horror anthology should be defined as “new” in the year 2017? Well, frankly, it shouldn’t. But someone has to be there first and those someones have delivered a product that, despite being a laudable first step, encounters problems similar to many that share the same format.
Like most anthological features, some of the segments prove more proof of concept than fulfilling stories in and of themselves. Kusama is the most experienced of the collective and her familiarity with toying with audiences shows. She pairs anxiety with the occult with “Her Only Living Son”, making something that is dark and unsettling but spilling over with maternal instincts.
Jovanka Vuckovic too taps into the idea of motherhood with her spooky and open-ended starvation piece “The Box”. After peering inside a stranger’s box on the subway, a son suddenly refuses to eat anything. Despite number attempts at intervention, the anorexia continues, spreading through the family who grow gaunt and potentially cannibalistic. Of the four, “The Box” makes the best use of the limited format, offering a mystery that benefits from its brevity rather than feeling insubstantial for it. Vuckovic, who has yet to make a feature film, films without doubt the most unique and intriguing of the four pieces.
Rocker St. Vincent (Annie Clark) makes a splashy directorial debut with “The Birthday Party”, a low-broiling comedy of denial that sees a crumbling Melanie Lynskey struggle to keep up appearances when her husband dies just before their daughter’s big birthday bash. There’s splashes of jet black humor – yuppies and death make for a decidedly inspired pairing – but the ominous red herrings that don’t really lead anywhere make “The Birthday Party” feels like a first time product that isn’t quite finished yet. Lynskey is nonetheless on the ball, making a mesmerizing and swift descent into crippling denial.
It’s a disappointment that Roxanne Benjamin, who is no stranger to horror anthologies (she’s produced the first two V/H/S features and directed a chunk of last year’s Southbound), has the weakest of the bunch in “Don’t Fall”. A fairly rote creature feature that more than the others feels like an under-cooked narrative turned into a practical effects showcase, “Don’t Fall” pits four campers against an unspecified demonic force but doesn’t even manage to serve up mythology as deep as an episode of “Are You Afraid of the Dark”.
Despite complaints common to the anthology niche, each segment has its merits. “The Box” deliciously plays with withholding information; “The Birthday Party” is a nasty slice of the dark comedy of denial; “Don’t Fall” showcases some nasty creature practical effect; and “Her Only Living Son” manages to be both somehow malevolent and yet fiercely injected with a mother’s love. Interrupted by eerie stop motion animation – a venus fly trap of a doll, rotting stop motion fruits, contorted, breathing furniture; all suggestive of the title sequence before American Horror Story episodes – from award-wining animator Sofia Carrillo, XX is a moody tone piece stitched together by an empowered assembly of X-chromosomed directors showcasing why we need more prevalent female voices in the horror community.
CONCLUSION: Like any anthology, the female-directed horror short collection ‘XX’ embodies the problems native to the anthology format – shallow character development, thinly sketched narrative arcs, with short-term investment wielding sparse long-term scares – but its clever notes of dark comedy, impressive effects work, nasty story turns and lingering questions means high highs overshadowing relative lows.