Director: Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, and Jovanka Vuckovic
Horror is seen as a predominantly male-driven genre, that much can scarcely be argued against. It is also often seen as little more than the playground of maladjusted geeks who judge the merit of a work by how much blood is shed and how many breasts are exposed. While this may be true to a certain extent, one would be remiss to discount the presence, and importance, of women within the genre. I’m not merely talking about the wealth of powerful heroines who have hacked and slashed their way into pop culture notoriety, I’m talking about the very people who brought those characters to life, shattering notions of strength and femininity along the way. Classics such as NEAR DARK and PET SEMATARY, modern opuses such as 2014’s nerve-fraying THE BABADOOK, as well as the undeniably cool A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, and even the nigh-perfect AMERICAN PSYCHO were all directed by women. And that is all to say nothing of a woman (literally) writing the book on horror 200 years ago with FRANKENSTEIN. XX, the latest outing from Magnet Releasing, aims to find its place amongst these esteemed ranks.
Horror, as diverse and fiercely individualistic a genre as it is, is not immune to the influence of flavor-of-the-week trends, and is certainly not shy about capitalizing on them. It happens all the time; just look at the litany of found footage, exorcism, and paranormal films cranked out over the last few years. However, one of the more peculiar of these recent trends is that of the anthology—a collection of short films loosely connected by an often tenuous theme. Horror anthologies have made sporadic theatrical appearances since at least the mid-60s, but it wasn’t until quite recently that they’ve been produced with any sort of frequency, and boy are there a lot of them now. It’s easy to see why: horror films are cheap to make as it is, and they usually see a high profit margin, so why not make a handful of them on a micro-budget, ship them out, and call it a day? Well, whether or not that is how it actually goes down, here we have XX, the latest in a long line of shoestring horror anthologies.
Cake Panda < Coke Badger
There was a considerable amount of hype surrounding the release of XX, with much of it centered around its unique status of having all female directors at the helm and all women in the lead roles. (If you take a quick look at the movie poster above you will see that factoid is even the film’s tagline.) I like to think of myself as having an ear to the ground when it comes to horror, but, to be quite honest, that little bit is all I really knew about the film going in. I’m not sure if it was an intentional move on the part of its team, but there was hardly any info on XX circulating beyond this, other that the titles of its four shorts. Whatever the case, promoting the film as an all-woman tour de force was certainly a deliberate and calculated move. An all-women horror anthology sounds cool as hell—that’s how it sold me—and, with no other information given, it can’t really be dismissed for any other reason, making the film, at least initially, bulletproof to any would-be detractors (or at least those who don’t want to run the risk of being called misogynists). But, there is a fundamental misstep with this approach: Magnet either assumed (or hoped) its audience was unaware of the many female horror directors and films already out there, and tried to pass XX off as a unique venture when it really isn’t, which is so cynical it could actually be possible. Or, even worse, the folks at Magnet themselves were unaware of horror’s storied history with female participants, which is so preposterous it can’t possibly be right, but it just might be. Either way, now that it’s out, I can finally rip into this thing.
The first short, Jovanka Vuckovic’s THE BOX, adapted from renowned horror author Jack Ketchum’s short story of the same name, opens on a family riding the subway before their youngest son gets friendly with Stranger Danger incarnate. The man, over-the-top creepy in every way, sits with—you guessed it—a box on his lap. The boy asks what it is and looks inside before his mom, rightfully, like any good parent should, rebukes him. The family gets off at the next stop, and so does any chance of excitement, as the story just sort of plods on until it has to end, never arriving at any real conclusion. As far as source material goes, you can’t really go wrong with Jack Ketchum. His work gave us 2007’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, which—to me, at least—is more disturbing, heart- and gut-wrenching than IRREVERSIBLE and even SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. How Vuckovic managed to create something so listless and terminally boring from what apparently won a best short story award is beyond me. Catch the next train.
Kids like this are the reason crossing guards exist
The second short, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, directed by Annie Clark, aka indie music darling St. Vincent, centers around—wow, right again—a birthday party that should have been over before it started. An ordinary, everyday mother wakes to find herself front and center for a tragic, slow-motion train wreck unfolding on the morning of her daughter’s birthday. Hijinks ensue, there is cake, and everyone is traumatized for life. Sounds great, right? Well, no. Not only is the tone all over the place, but it is so tedious and muddled that it is almost impossible to feel any sense of involvement, even as the walls finally close in around her. I suppose these qualities could be viewed as clever parallels to the mother’s psychological responses to her bizarre, unfortunate situation, but I highly doubt it was intentional and I am not willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. The worst part, however—and as someone who spends his free time reviewing movies I hesitate to say this—is that it is woefully pretentious. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY paints itself with the same kind of anachronous flair seen across Tim Burton’s oeuvre, but replaces every sliver of whimsy and childlike wonder (it’s a kid’s birthday party!) with a flat, sardonic, too-cool-for-school attitude that is so forced and so joyless that it cannot be taken seriously.
After the first two dreadful bits, Roxanne Benjamin’s DON’T FALL is, thankfully, mercifully, a fast-paced, no-frills creature feature send-up, and is easily the most entertaining of the lot. Four stereotypes—doofy stoner, geeky naturalist, out-of-place pretty girl, and even-more-out-of-place overly-jumpy stresscase—see the sights, prank each other, drink beer, and get high in a remote, isolated location before dying horrifically bloody, violent deaths. It is a very familiar setup (there’s more than a little EVIL DEAD going on), one which may warrant some red flags, but it manages to defy much of the predictability one might expect of it while offering up some genuinely cool monster effects, scares, and even some fun gags within its tight sub-15-minute run time. It is truly a blast. Of course, there is little in the way of plot or character development here, but that is of no real consequence, especially considering how the other duds that pad out the remaining hour or so of XX are guilty of the same shortcomings.
Your expression will match each of theirs at some point during this movie
XX’s final entry, Karyn Kusama’s HER ONLY LIVING SON, draws a few interesting similarities to WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN before resigning itself to a miserably transparent twist that has been endlessly rehashed since ROSEMARY’S BABY first rattled audiences nearly 50 years ago. If I haven’t already given it away, anyone with an even elementary grasp of Biblical language should be able to figure out what’s going on in this one by the title alone. Yes, it is painfully obvious what is happening from the get-go, leaving no real incentive to watch it play out other than in hopes of a solid ending and maybe seeing some disturbing imagery or gore, but it fails on both of those fronts as well. (That is not entirely true, there is some disturbing imagery/gore, but it is of the animal abuse variety and I cannot abide by that here.) This short, like the first two, serves as yet another reminder that time is not constant, as its 20 or so minutes ooze by like 20 minutes at the DMV or the doctor’s office.
Accounting for budget and time constraints, a fair amount of leeway has to be given to any short film, let alone a collection of them, before criticizing it. Judging one (or several) on the basis of production value, aforementioned plot and character development, pacing, or really any of the metrics applied to feature-length movies is done on shaky grounds, as those qualities do not apply as they normally would. The only constant between short and feature-length is the degree of artistry involved, and by that logic, the only way to rightfully judge the success of a short film is in the clarity of its artistic vision. Meant as a showcase for budding female talent, what we’re given here is amateur hour. Misguided, uninspired, and so deliriously boring it seems to drag for hours despite each segment averaging 20 minutes in length, XX amounts to nothing more than a gimmick not worth the price of admission. If you’re looking for a great horror film that happens to be directed by a woman, look no further than the first paragraph of this review. If you’re in the mood for a horror anthology that is worth your while, you might want to check out TRICK ‘R TREAT, SOUTHBOUND, or V/H/S/2. If you’re looking for both, well, it might be best to keep your ear to the ground.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend