One of the most talked about movies to hit the film festival circuit this year, was the all female-directed horror anthology, XX. The anthology features five prominent female directors including Jovanka Vuckovic (THE CAPTURED BIRD), Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Roxanne Benjamin (SOUTHBOUND), Karyn Kusama (THE INVITATION) and Sofia Carrillo (LA CASA TRISTE). Each short features a female lead and brings the viewer on a personal journey of horror and suspense. Though this anthology isn't perfect, as very, very few are, there is definite talent within each director and I enjoyed seeing each of them pain their own vision of what horror is. To better review the film, I've decided it would be best to go through each one separately.
Dir: Jovanka Vuckovic
The short, based off the story of the same title by Jack Ketchum, is driven by mystery and tension. A woman (Natalie Brown) is riding on the subway with her two children right before Christmas. She looks frazzled and tired as her children talk excitedly next to her. Her son Danny, (Peter DaCunha) asks the passenger next to him if he can peek into the box and the passenger happily obliges. From that moment on, her son will not eat. Not matter how much food he is given, no matter how beautiful (and let me tell you, the food looked absolutely scrumptious) the food looks, no matter if it was his favorite dish or not. He will not eat and just repeatedly states he's not hungry. What could have been in this box to have made her son essentially starve himself?
The ending leaves a lot to be interpreted. Typically a fan of open-ended conclusions, this was one of those rare times I wanted to know more. I didn't need to know everything, just a hint of what he witnessed inside that brightly colored red box would have sufficed. Throughout the short, the tension between the family grows and is almost palpable as the viewer watched the family come to terms with what is happening to their child. What I found to be most interesting, though, was the dynamics between the mother and father (Jonathan Watton). They had what I would consider to be a role reversal. The father seemed more concerned than his wife, and maybe I'm reading into things too much, but it seemed as though the sicker the child became the less concerned the mother seemed to be. Maybe she was finally getting the break she always wanted.
I felt as though this short had a lot of strengths and very few weaknesses, mostly being the ending. Some may argue that that shouldn't be a cause of contention, but for me, I just needed a little more substance to round out the entire story. With that being said, the acting and what I assume to be most practical effects that were used to make the kids look gaunt, were fantastic. Overall, this was a strong short to kick off this anthology.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Dir: Annie Clark (St. Vincent)
This short centers around Mary (Melanie Lynskey), an anxious mother who is getting ready to throw her young, adopted daughter a birthday party. Problems arise when Mary finds her husband dead and she must frantically hide this revelation from her daughter and their suspicious housekeeper, Carla (Sheila Vand). Hilarity ensues as Mary navigates hiding the body while trying to also appease her incredibly annoying neighbor and get the birthday party off without a hitch.
I wouldn't necessarily categorize this short as horror, though there is a dead body. I feel like this short plays better as a somewhat exaggerated social commentary on what life is like in the upper-middle class lifestyle. Though I am a fan of Melanie Lynskey, I really though Sheila Vand was fantastic as she played the pristine housekeeper who looked more suited for the role of art gallery owner rather than someone who takes care of a home and/or someone's child. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY is Annie Clark's directorial debut and though I enjoyed the acting and the set design, I felt like the short needed an extra push to bring it into the territory of horror. For me, this was the only short that seemed out of place with the others in the anthology. With that said, I still think Ms. Clark has an eye for detail and design and as a stand alone film, she does a great job. As a side note, I would absolutely love to see a short film about Sheila Vand's character.
Dir: Roxanne Benjamin
If I had to pick one short that sent shivers down my spine, it would definitely be Roxanne Benjamin's THE FALL. The story centers around a group of friends (Angela Trimbur, Breeda Wool, Morgan Krantz, Casey Adams) who camp overnight in the desert. The story begins to unfold after the group stumbles upon some ancient carving on the side of some large rocks that leave Gretchen (Breeda Wool) feeling a bit uneasy about their expedition. Like any good horror story, once the darkness of night creeps in, and the full moon rises high, an unspeakable horror descends upon the friends.
The reason this short worked so well is because it's a tried and true story. It has everything we want; action, horror, suspense, blood and gore. THE FALL doesn't need to rely on gimmicks or over-the-top special effects to get it's point across. The story itself is creepy and the reveal of the creature is the icing on the cake. Roxanne Benjamin is talented, there's no doubt about it, but I would love to see her transcend the short films seen in horror anthologies and direct her own horror feature. She's proven herself time and time again that she has a knack for scaring audiences and THE FALL proves that once again. What's great about this short is that even thought it would be nice to see it become a full feature, there's still enough substance and story to make it a well rounded short that comes full circle and leaves the audience feeling satisfied.
HER ONLY LIVING SON
Dir: Karyn Kusama
If you throw in a story about cults and/or Satan, 99% of the time I'm in. In Karyn Kusama's HER ONLY LIVING SON, we get a taste of both. The short centers around Cora (Christina Kirk), a single mother who is watching her boy (Kyle Allen) turn into the man he unfortunately is to become. As he begins to question the absence of his father, Cora tries to shield him from the impending doom that is hanging over their heads. However, she soon finds out that the townsfolk all want to see her son Andy rise up in the ranks and stand tall next to his father - no matter the cost.
To me, this was the strongest out of the four shorts. Sure, in some ways it still follows in the footsteps of films like THE OMEN, but that didn't deter me from being mesmerized by what was unfolding. I loved seeing the changes that began to happen to Andy, as well as the frantic nature of his mom over the inevitable. I'm not sure if practical effects were used to achieve the changes but if so, I thought they were fantastic. What I really loved about this short though was the underlying story of love and loyalty and the bond between mother and son. To me, this was the only short that had an ounce of heart in it (not to say that makes the other shorts bad, it doesn't at all). Whereas THE FALL evoked a feeling of fear, HER ONLY LIVING SON made me feel an array of emotions, which is a huge achievement when the director only has a run time of about 20 minutes. Overall, this short hit it out of the park for me and I felt as though it was executed almost perfectly. As much as I enjoyed the ending, a part of me would have loved to have witnessed what would have happened had the son chose a different path. I guess for now, my imagination will have to do!
Interwoven through all of these stories was stop-motion animation from Sofia Carrillo. This was probably one of my favorite aspects of XX because it was creepy and unsettling without having to try too hard. I could catch glimpses of how these intermittent performances could correspond with the shorts, but overall there wasn't much that tied the two together. However, I would LOVE to see more from Sofia Carrillo as she is incredibly talented with what she does.
Overall, though XX wasn't a 100% grand slam, it was still an amazing feat put together by five extremely talented female directors. They all have something special within each of their shorts and horror fans will no doubt find something that they love within the stories presented. In a world run by male driven filmmaking, it's refreshing to see females take the helm and forge their own paths without asking for permission and without apology. This anthology is only a taste of what all these talented women are capable of and I can't wait to see more from them in the future.