A review of the new female-directed horror anthology XX
To anyone even remotely familiar with the film industry, it’s common knowledge that the issue of women working in cinema, or its lack thereof, is a huge one. Fifty percent of film school grads are female, yet they only comprise 7% of working directors, a number that understandably does not sit well with a lot of people, this writer included. Storytelling requires a multitude of voices, and that is stifled by a commercial industry that is clearly catering mainly to a limited demographic.
But, genre fans and artists being the fiery bunch they are, have become incredibly proactive in battling against that lack of voice being given female directors. The last few years have seen the galvanization and forward movement of women artists, and forward thinking programmers, like Mitch Davis at Montreal’s FanTasia, and the crew behind Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, have been proactive in helping, by ensuring the inclusion of the female perspective on genre in their line-up.
Now, one of the major first strikes against the proverbial “Boy’s Club” has been landed, thanks in large part to producers Jovanka Vuckovic and Todd Brown. Horror fans know Jovanka as the former editor of the highly-regarded Rue Morgue magazine, who went on to get behind the camera herself and start kicking in doors and making inroads. Cinema fans will likely know Todd as the editor-in-chief of Screen Anarchy, formerly known as Twitch Film. Jovanka had initially planned on going through Kickstarter to fund her project, which would be a horror anthology featuring all women directors and serve as a showcase for both new and veteran talent. Todd came into the picture, and picked up the project for XYZ Films, funding fell into place, and the project became a reality.
Well now “It’s Alive!!!!” to paraphrase a well-known mad scientist, as XX bloodied up theater auditoriums at this year’s hallowed and renowned Sundance Festival, in Park City, Utah.
XX opens up with the first of many wrap-around segments, which are beautifully animated with dolls and real sets by Mexican artist Sofia Carrillo. With notes of The Brothers Quay, Jan Sjvankmeyer and Tim Burton, Carrillo actually uses her own teeth and hair in her puppets, which she then brings to surrealistic life one frame at a time. Her work is beautiful and stunning, also echoing the classic Russian and European animators of the past. Dark and magical.
The first vignette of XX comes from Jovanka herself, an adaptation of an old Jack “Dallas” Ketchum short story, “The Box.” The premise is maddeningly simple: a young boy on a subway train with his family is sitting next to a stranger who is holding a big red gift wrapped box. When the boy asks to see what is in the box, and is told by his mother to not be nosy, the stranger chuckles politely, and agrees to show the boy, then exits at his stop, leaving the boy suddenly slack and despondent. From that point on the boy loses his appetite and begins declining his dinner. This escalates and soon… well, things are not going well.
Stylistically, Vuckovic mines some serious Rod Serling territory here. She name-checked The Twilight Zone last night at the Q&A, but when I think about it, for me it hearkens more to Night Gallery, Serling’s later era horror anthology show (maybe if there is an XX2, paintings! Juuuust sayin’).
With a bleak look, determinedly-languid camera work (which does reflect the lack of energy the boy experiences quite nicely) and some solid acting, XX gets off to a good start. I particularly enjoyed the character of the big sister, with a big appetite. And the spin Vuckovic puts on the original Ketchum story is actually pretty brilliant, in switching the personality traits of the mother and the father.
Next is “The Birthday Party,” by Annie Clark. A dark, dark comedy about an obviously stressed to the max mother trying to prep for her young daughter’s birthday, while dealing with the frigid and aggressive maid, the absence of her husband for their child’s party, and needy neighbors prone to gossip.
The surroundings are conservative chic, and the mother looks to be a bit of an ex-trophy wife, who wanders the house perpetually in her bathrobe now, drinking early in the morning to cope, but still handling her sh*t. But when she finds her husband, who she thought was still away on business, slumped over dead in his office from a pill-induced suicide, “handling her sh*t” becomes a lot more difficult. What ensues is a cat and mouse hide and sneak thing, that reminded me of that old Popeye cartoon where Olive Oil is sleepwalking from moving girder to moving girder, or like a round of some stealth video game. Can this willful and tenacious mom somehow hide the body for an hour or two until her daughters’ party is over?
This one was easily the biggest surprise for me in XX. When I heard Clark was doing one of the vignettes I scratched my head a little and drifted towards “stunt casting,” because in her other life she is known as St. Vincent, a very successful musician and critic’s darling. It’s deserved, her music is amazing as well as ground breaking, but I was unsure of what she would bring to a horror anthology. But the producers of XX know what the hell they are doing, without question, because “The Birthday Party,” with its Black Hole Sun visual aesthetic and the lead performance from Melanie Lynskey, is super funny while being a white knuckle stress fest too. Lynskey is known to fans for her iconic performance as Pauline Parker in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. She kills it here. Loved this one.
Then BAM! BAM! BAM! Roxanne Benjamin (who helped bring us the V/H/S anthologies, and co-wrote the aforementioned “The Birthday Party”) bends the audience over and kicks it squarely in the ass as she fires off with “Don’t Fall,” the most viciously-direct piece in XX.
A group of friends go camping where they shouldn’t, a sacred site of an unnamed (or I didn’t catch it) indigenous people. When one of the girls in the party, a city lifer with no great love for the outdoors, who they constantly tease and scare, scratches her hand against some mysterious red glyphs on a rock… uh oh. Soon she is transformed into a ravenous beast out to mutilate and kill her companions.
Benjamin keeps it upper short and sweet with this one, a chase and kill monster slasher that did a great job of referencing ’80s style victim/survivor tropes, and delivers some beautifully-choreographed action. There was a shot that did confuse me concerning the transformation of the girl to creature, but still, “Don’t Fall” is a kick in the nuts. Super duper fun.
XX winds up with what may be the longest and epic of the shorts, Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son.” An older, struggling single mother is raising her son in hiding from the threat of a mysterious father who we hear about in hushed and scared conversation. As her son approaches his 18th birthday, he is becoming increasingly moody, with sudden outbursts of anger and sadistic acts of violence. When an assault against a girl at school goes unchecked by the faculty, who refuse to penalize the boy, the mother realizes he is being protected and groomed for “something great” by a secret cabal of conspirators. Just who the hell (ahem) is the boy’s father? And will he finally find them to take her child “home” on his 18th birthday?
“Her Only Living Son” could easily be called “We Need to Talk About Rosemary’s Baby,” but I do not mean that in the negative. A solid tale of a mother willing to literally fight off the powers of hell for her son, who struggles to retain his humanity as he feels the pull to succumb to his true evil nature, it’s an incredibly strong piece, and looks like a Big Movie. Not surprising, since Kusama has been directing for a long, long time and has deserved her due for well over a decade after coming out swinging with her feature debut back in 2000 with Girlfight, about female boxers. Her recent oddball horror film The Invitation was one of the year’s best, and “Her Only Living Son” has me sincerely hoping Kusama decides to stick around and muck about in our beloved horror genre. Another winner.
Well, this anthology ends a lot of arguments, and given the number of directors that had to drop out due to other projects coming through, including Jen Lynch who has done the best episodes of The Walking Dead to date, and the growing plethora of women helping to drive genre fare forward into new territory, it looks like XX is marking the spot for the future of horror.
I’m ready for a second installment.
XX opens in limited theatrical release and VOD on February 17.