This four-part anthology of short horror films features stories that include some traditional themes but all are shown from a female point of view.
Director: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama
Starring: Karyn Kusama, Melanie Lynskey, Jonathan Watton, Natalie Brown, Sheila Vand, Lindsay Burdge, Jovanka Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Christina Kirk, Mike Doyle, Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Casey Adams, Morgan Krantz, Kyle Allen
Information Page: https://www.newonnetflix.info/info/80027041
Despite being a horror fan, I can’t say I’ve watched that many anthology films. But “XX”’s unique selling point had me intrigued: all four writer-directors are female. To match the film’s format, I’m going to approach this slightly differently to a normal review. I’ll discuss each of the four shorts in a paragraph, before finishing with an evaluation of how they play as a whole.
The first short, titled The Box, takes place in the lead up to Christmas. Susan (Natalie Brown) is on the subway with her two children. Her son (Peter DaCunha) sees a stranger with a brightly wrapped present and asks what’s inside. The man shows him. The son won’t tell his mum what he saw, but he starts to act strangely and refuse to accept food. In the hands of David Lynch, this might have been a really sinister little short, but director Jovanka Vuckovic doesn’t have quite the same grasp of creeping surreal dread. DaCunha is good, though, as the son, despite the relatively speedy pacing meaning we never feel the pain of his fast.
The second, and weakest, offering is The Birthday Party, the directorial debut of Annie Clark (aka talented musician St. Vincent). Melanie Lynskey stars as a mother who has to deal with an unfortunate incident during her daughter’s birthday party. In contrast with the sincerity of The Box, Clark aims for dark humour, but it never comes to all that much. In fact, there are moments that really expose Clark’s inexperience. On this evidence, she doesn’t yet have a firm grasp of pacing in dialogue scenes. Unnatural editing diffuses tension, as the camera cuts back and forth between characters far too quickly. There also seem to be misjudged allusions to racial issues. Sheila Vand plays the family nanny and her performance and the way Clark frames the character hints at a racial subtext. However, by never fully exploring it, Clark confuses rather than enlightens.
The third short displays a more conventional, and effective, sense of horror filmmaking. Don’t Fall, from director Roxanne Benjamin (who also co-wrote The Birthday Party), sees four friends spend the night in the American desert, where they are tormented by an ancient spirit. Benjamin displays an eye for creating horror through visual contradictions and framing, but ultimately her offering is little more than a snappy creature feature.
The film finishes well with Her Only Living Son, which is directed by the most experienced of the four filmmakers, Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation). The short is again centred on a mother and concerns her son, as he approaches his eighteenth birthday and the truth about him risks finally coming out. The twisted fairy tale feel is more distinct than the tones in the other three shorts and encourages a welcome poetry to the film. It’s also strengthened by a strong pair of performances by Christina Kirk and Kyle Allen as the mother and son respectively.
Overall, it’s good to see women’s fears played out on the big screen because so much horror is concerned primarily with “male” fears. There’s no dismemberment here to play on castration anxiety; instead, the body horror is more subtle and interior. That being said, the types of women these films choose to focus on are very limited. Apart from Don’t Fall, all the protagonists are mothers. Now, this may be a comment upon society’s refusal to accept women in anything other than maternal roles, but “XX” seems like the perfect opportunity to defy those sexist expectations and tell stories from the perspectives of a wide spectrum of women.
The length of the shorts also doesn’t quite work. They each run at roughly 20 minutes, which is too long for a one-off scare gag, but also too short to afford proper character development. This is particularly felt in the films’ pacing and endings, none of which satisfy. It’s also a shame that the films don’t have much in the way of deeper meaning. It’s the stock-in-trade of even the most simplistic horror to work with metaphor and double meanings, but “XX” largely fails on that front. In the end, the film’s noble intention is what stands out, as opposed to the middling selection of films.
Have you seen this film? Let us know your opinions in the comments below and of course if there are any films on Netflix UK you want us to review let us know!