XX is an anthology comprising four short horror films directed by women, presumably because the genre is particularly inhospitable to women, something that I imagine is true despite the fact that two recent examples — Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, both from 2014 — are among my favorite scary movies.
85 cast: Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Peyton Kennedy, Sheila Vand, Lindsay Burdge, Sanai Victoria, Casey Adams, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle, Brenda Wehle, Morgan Peter Brown, Lisa Renee Pitts
Directors: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama
running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes Available on demand
They seem more mature than a lot of horror fare, which sometimes oscillates between nihilistic torture porn and somber zombies into which we’re supposed to inject meaning. Three of the four films in this collection are, like The Babadook, psychological explorations of motherly anxiety that feel smart and crisp. The fourth, Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, is more a standard action-packed creature feature, albeit one that could be read as satire.
While none of these films feels especially important — they all suffer from the lack of character development imposed by relatively brief running times — they all might serve their makers as useful calling cards. Any of these women could probably handle a feature. It would be nice to see them get the chance.
The first, best and ultimately most frustrating short is The Box by Canadian filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic, based on the Edgar Award-winning short story by Jack Ketchum. It’s set around the holidays as a suburban mom (Natalie Brown) returns from shopping in the city with her two children. On the train home her young son (Peter DaCunha) notices a curious man holding a gift-wrapped box on his lap. When the boy asks him what’s in the box, the stranger allows him a peek. He grows quiet. Later, at dinner, he doesn’t feel like eating. This persists for several days. Eventually he tells his sister, and his father. Both of them mysteriously stop eating as well. What’s in the box? Do you really want to know?
It’s a simple premise, but the execution is flawless, and the sense of maternal dread is palpable. Vuckovic sustains an uneasy mood throughout, as the facts lead to an inevitable conclusion.
The second film in the collection — Annie Clark’s (also known as musician St. Vincent) The Birthday Party, a comedy of errors that mightn’t quite qualify as a horror film at all — is likely to get the most attention. It stars indie darling Melanie Lynskey as a helicoptering parent eager to ensure that nothing goes wrong at her adopted daughter’s 7th birthday party. While the nasty situation that arises might feel derivative (see Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry), Clark has a nice way with a camera and a sensibility that doesn’t fall too far from fellow Texan Wes Anderson’s. (Sheila Vand, who appeared in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, has a quirky role as an officious housekeeper.)
The other film, Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, is a wild-child story that plays like a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and We Need to Talk About Kevin — and the film that will probably come closest to satisfying those with more conventional horror tastes.
All these films are glued together by creepy stop-motion animation interstitial sequences by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, which might be the element most likely to induce nightmares.-