I’ve been wanting to watch XX since I first read the festival hype around it last year. But I was a good blogger and persevered and saved this baby for Women in Horror Month. Needless to say, there was a lot of anticipation here.
Unfortunately, I have to say that this wasn’t worth waiting for.
XX is an anthology film directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clarke, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Karyn Kusama with Sofia Carrillo directing the framing story.
The first segment was directed by Vuckovic, whose short film The Captured Bird I watched for last year’s Women in Horror Month. And really, she’s made great strides. Her shots were great and the cast was charming. Unlike The Captured Bird, though, this short was based off a short story by the late horror writer Jack Ketchum.
“The Box” begins when a woman’s son takes a peek at the inside of a stranger’s Christmas present. After seeing what was inside, the boy stops eating. His sister follows suit within the week. And when his concerned father asks him what’s wrong, the father also begins to starve himself. One by one, the woman’s family starve to death, leaving her alone to endless search for the man and his box.
It’s a haunting story, but ultimately, it’s a little too open-ended to feel satisfying. It’s a pretty tricky thing to get right with a short film. Sometimes there is such a thing as too much mystery. Perhaps it works for the more philosophical of us, but I personally felt that it didn’t dig enough.
The Birthday Party
This quirky short was filled with plenty of kitsch charm. Directed by Clark, and co-written with Benjamin, “The Birthday Party” begins with a mother getting ready for her daughter’s birthday party. She’s determined to make perfect, but her plans are derailed when she finds her husband dead in his study.
Not wanting to spoil the party, the mother hides her husband’s corpse in a panda bear suit bought off a party performer. And while the guests look on, the dead body is accidentally knocked into the cake. And when the panda head is removed, the guests (including the children) all see the corpse beneath.
It’s a cute piece, but again doesn’t explain enough of its imagery. Shelia Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) plays the nosy nanny dressed in stark black. It certainly looks good, but there isn’t enough of her character to make sense of it.
The performances from Vand and Melanie Lynskey are great, but I don’t think enough development was really given to either. If this short meant to make a statement, it missed it. If it was trying to be cartoonish, it didn’t go far enough. But Clark’s style was certainly cute enough to make me want to watch more of her future work (even if short went weirdly music video-like half-way through).
“Don’t Fall” is easily the weakest of the four shorts. It’s unimaginative and sloppy. Four kids go out into the desert and camp in a protected land. An ancient evil awakes and possesses one of the girls. She kills the friends off one by one. With really basic creature design.
I’m not sure Benjamin was trying to do with this. Unless I missed something subtle, I didn’t understand why she made something so cliche. The girl who becomes possessed is made fun of by her friends. So I don’t know? Push a bitch too far and she’ll get possessed?
Bonus points for Angela Trimbur. She’s hilarious in The Good Place.
Her Only Living Son
The final short was from Karyn Kusama, who showed off here as the writer and director with the most experience. Single mom Cora lives with her son Andy. As his 18th birthday approached, Andy becomes more violent and evil. But most people around them seem to be very forgiving. Many people even tell Cora that they’ll do anything to protect him.
On the night of his 18th, it’s revealed that he is the spawn of Satan. But unwilling to give up her son to the Devil, Cora asks Andy to choose staying with her instead of taking his place with the Devil. When he chooses her, they embrace, and they are crushed to death by an evil force.
Kusama’s story is ultimately about a mother’s determination to keep her children safe and loved. Throughout the short, Cora gets it both right and wrong. She tries to be supportive, but at times becomes invasive. While the story is extreme, in many ways the relationship between mother and son makes it feel very real.
Some of the effects seemed cheap, but it can be easily overlooked as this is by far the strongest story.
With a title like XX, I was expecting some female-driven stories. While women actors feature as mains in every short, the film never seemed too interested in exploring more complex female experiences. Half of the shorts didn’t seem interested in saying anything at all.
Horror is a fantastic genre to use when trying to tell stories from a female perspective. It can be gross and insightful. It’s possible to do it, as seen in work like Anna Biller’s shorts and Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist.
That’s not to say that female directors always need to tell a female story, but I do feel slightly misled. When you have the platform and make such a big deal about being all-female, then maybe someone should have had the nerve to try something more gutsy.
I did, though, love the theme of family that ran most of these films. It’s an underrated asset in horror. But none of these films tackled sisterhood or even female friendship to any sort of degree. There’s plenty to explore without doing the same basic tropes (or maybe that was the point?).
This anthology felt like four short films that were made separately. Then someone decided they should throw them all in together as an after thought. As stand-alone films, I think they would almost fare better. But I guess this does defeat the notion that women are stronger together.
I do recommend watching XX. I was more let down by my own unnecessary anticipation and expectations than anything. It’s a good, solid anthology. If only a bit frustrating.