Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/17/17 10:34:25

2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

The trouble with a lot of anthology films—especially ones of the horror variety—is that the very way that they are structured means that anyone watching them may get caught up in the frustrating experience of getting invested in a particular story and its characters, only to have them yanked away and replaced by new ones every 20 minutes or so. It also usually means that viewers will inevitably prefer some of the stories to others and spend the time during the latter wishing that they could go back to the ones that they liked. In the case of “XX,” a new horror anthology film with the hook that each of the four stories and the bits linking them together were written and directed by women, the good news is that these inevitable structural hiccups are not as bothersome as they might have been. The bad news is that the reason they aren’t so bothersome is that the tales on display are so uneven and relatively lackluster that few will mind being yanked abruptly from one to the other and that the gap in quality between the highlights and the lowpoints is not that vast.

The film kicks off with “The Box,” Jovanka Vukovic’s “The Box,” an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum short story that begins with young Danny (Peter DaCunha) riding the subway with mother Susan (Natalie Brown) and sister Jenny (Peyton Kennedy) when he asks the strange man (Michael Dyson) what is in the gift-wrapped box he is holding. The man shows him and while we don’t see what the contents are, the otherwise normal-seeming Danny refuses to eat anything afterwards. Danny begins to waste away, followed by Jenny and his father (Jonathan Watton), but Susan essentially decides to deal with the problem by refusing to acknowledge that there even is a problem until it is far too late. On a somewhat lighter note, “The Birthday Party,” marking the directorial debut of Annie Clark, a.k.a. musician St. Vincent, features Melanie Lynskey as a picture-perfect suburban housewife who is preparing to throw a lavish birthday party for her daughter one morning when she discovers that her husband has committed suicide. Unwilling to let this minor detail ruin a potential perfect party, she frantically attempts to juggle the last-minute preparations with hiding the body with the inevitable gruesome results.

Next up is “Don’t Fall,” a segment from Roxanne Benjamin (“Southbound”), follows a group of college friends (Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Breeda Wool and Casey Adams) who drive a camper out into the desert for a brief vacation and stumble upon a site that is off the beaten path. In news that may shock you, the four wind up awakening a monstrous evil spirit that returns the favor by trying to slaughter the lot of them. Finally, Karyn Kusma (“Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body”) winds things up with “Her Only Living Son,” in which harried single mother Cora (Christina Kirk) is increasingly put off by her son Andy (Kyle Allen) and his increasingly violent and anti-social tendencies, not to mention the willingness of so many people to overlook them for no apparent reason. As Andy’s 18th birthday approaches, Cora is forced to finally confront not only Andy’s increasing levels of hostility but the terrifying circumstances surrounding his conception and the identity of his real father. Linking the four stories together is some creepy stop-motion animation from Sofia Carillo centered on the creepy object in a dilapidated house coming to life and moving about.

While none of the stories in “XX” is especially successful, at least they have the decency to stumble in different ways. “The Box” is probably the best of the four stories—it is a well-crafted piece that develops an increasingly disturbing atmosphere as it goes on and contains a strong central performance from Brown as the mother bearing witness to the destruction of everything that she knows and loves. Unfortunately, for the story to have the full impact that it is clearly striving to achieve, it should have been made as a stand-alone feature that would have given the narrative time to breathe and fully ensnare viewers instead of rushing them through before yanking them away. Some may object to the inclusion of “The Birthday Party” on the basis that it is not really a horror film per se but more of a cartoonish black comedy than anything else while others will object on the basis that it isn’t very good—Lynskey is good but the material is strained and the whole thing feels like a Coen Brothers setpiece played at the wrong speed. “Don’t Fall” is such a complete dud that it feels as if it was slapped together literally overnight in order to get the entire project up to a proper feature length. “Her Only Living Son” has a good performance by Christina Kirk but is hampered by two key problems. Like “The Box,” this is a story that needs to play out longer in order to achieve maximum effectiveness but the short format winds up leaving it feeling rushed. At the same time, the payoff is so crashingly obvious, even to those with only a limited working knowledge of horror films (it is a blatant ripoff of one of the touchstone titles of the genre), that they allegedly shocking final payoff has all the impact of a damp firecracker.

As a whole, the stories also suffer from a certain similarity in tone. The whole purpose of a film consisting of horror shorts written and directed by women is presumably to give that form of storytelling a shot in the arm by presenting tales from a different perspective that could go off in new and unique areas while subverting many of the cliches of the form. Unfortunately, other than telling stories female characters at their center, “XX” doesn’t really do that. The stories here feel virtually interchangeable with those found in similar anthologies and are surprisingly tame in regards to dealing with gender and its relationship to the horror genre. The only thing that really stands out here are the stop-motion animation sequences by Carillo, which may not contain any real feminist perspective either but which are elegantly done and convey an undeniable creepiness despite their relative brevity. Other than that, this film could have been retitled “Creepshow 3” and it is highly unlikely that anyone would have noticed anything different about it in relation to other films of its type.

What really hurts about “XX” is that there are a lot of women directors out there doing impressive things in the horror genre these days. Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” is regarded as one of the best horror films of recent times and Ana Lily Amipour’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” put a startling spin on the traditional vampire narrative, to cite just two notable recent examples. Among non-horror filmmakers, I would love to see what such unique voices as Asia Argento and Sofia Coppola might do within the parameters of the genre (the latter has just done a remake of Don Siegel twisted Gothic drama “The Beguiled” that cannot get here too soon). In other words, women are perfectly capable of making great and powerful horror films—the kind that keep you on the edge of your seat while watching them and which haunt your dreams afterwards. Unfortunately, none of the contributors to “XX” have done that here and the end result is a film that arrives with undeniably noble intentions but which sadly falls apart when it comes to execution.

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