So far, to its absolute detriment, the horror anthology craze has almost completely excluded women from its brain trust of directors. This has been especially true for the V/H/S series, the most successful and famous of them all, which boasted a first film so objectionable I got the fuck out of there in the first 20 minutes. That franchise has shown no signs of improvement on the gender parity front over the course of its several sequels, and outside of one amazing Gareth Evans-directed short, I have no idea why anybody would watch those pieces of shit. Thankfully, a new breed of horror anthology has come along to bring the girls to the front. XX (the chromosomes, not the band), a new set of four short films comprised of work from five female filmmakers (the fifth being stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, who provides beautiful Jan Svankmajer-styled shorts between each of the four films) seems intended to be a shot across the bow of modern horror, as if to announce to the world that, yes, women can make horror, too (duh). But it’s an absolutely admirable statement to make, especially in a genre so defined by its troublesome aspects both in front of and behind the camera, and, for the most part, it works.
The first short film, an adaptation of the classic Jack Ketchum story “The Box” directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, is perhaps the worst of the bunch, if only because it lacks the visual flair of the others and is kind of empty, storywise. A mother (played by Natalie Brown) and her two children have an encounter with an odd man on the subway during the Christmas season, and afterwards her son stops eating. Of course, things get worse. It’s competently acted, directed, and has a nice bleakness to it, but it lacks true tension, and as a result “The Box” plods along to an underwhelming and impact-free ending. Vuckovic, the storied former editor of Rue Morgue magazine, might be better served by a longer format, as a lot of the positives in her work here may land better given the time to breathe. If short films are supposed to be somewhat like a macaron, it’s best that they hit you with the flavor and essence up front, as the more subtle notes might not get across.
“The Birthday Party,” the contribution from Annie Clark, known otherwise as St. Vincent, comes next, and was probably the short I was looking forward to the most — she’s totally fucking rad, and the fantastic imagery used throughout her last self-titled record meant she had a pretty amazing eye for this kind of stuff. The plot sounded like a great deal of fun: A neat-freak mother (Melanie Lynskey) gets ready for her daughter’s birthday party, and in the process, discovers her deadbeat ex-husband has dropped the “beat” suffix and instead just died in her house. She decides to cover it up to not spoil her little girl’s big day, and needless to say, some childhoods get ruined in the process. It’s decently funny, Lynskey’s amazing as always, and the ’70s-era styling of the whole short makes it look absolutely fantastic. However, I’m a little disappointed to say that she doesn’t really stick the landing, though; Clark’s idea of a jump scare is to randomly blast you with a loud note from a horn in the middle of an average sequence. “The Birthday Party” also drags like hell, which suffocates some of Lynskey’s physical comedy, and makes a 20 minute short feel three times longer. I’m super excited to see what she does next, though, if she decides to continue working in film.
With the third film, Southbound director Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall,” XX strays back into some pretty typical horror waters, and it’s when the movie really starts to pick up the pace. A bunch of “hipsters” head out to the middle of the Southwest for some hiking, camping and partying, and proceed to do all the dumb stuff dumbasses do when they wander into sacred Native American ground, like piss everywhere, play dumb pranks on one another, and, oh, get possessed by an evil spirit and try to kill their friends. You know, what typically happens when you’re a character in a horror movie and need to die for the audience’s pleasure. Benjamin is totally game for all the pulpy nonsense that comes with this territory, and delivers all the crazy makeup effects (there are a few nods to stuff like An American Werewolf in London that land really well here) and gore that each of the previous shorts lacked. It’s a totally fun segment, even if it feels a little bit rushed; Benjamin crams enough in there that it occasionally feels like a Youtube video compilation of the best kills in a horror movie, with only the slightest plot in between- that adds a much needed dash of the grindhouse aesthetic to the otherwise prim proceedings.
The final segment, Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” is easily the best short of the bunch and also the main reason to buy a ticket to the damn thing. Basically, a single mother (Christina Kirk) notices that her son (Kyle Allen) is going through some peculiar changes right before his eighteenth birthday. Mood swings, physical developments, trouble at school, nailing small animals to trees… you know, the usual. You’ll be thrilled to watch where it goes from there. Kusama, the director of the Sundance hit Girl Fight and last year’s horror sensation The Invitation, pulls no punches, and effectively sets up the creepiest atmosphere of any of the shorts. There’s a real dread to be found in the last minutes of this short and, though there aren’t a ton of scares, Kusama’s masterful tension makes this magnetic viewing. Kirk and Allen give the best performances of the film, and create a realistic mother/son dynamic amidst some pretty ridiculous circumstances. They say the best horror comes from making real life worries concrete and exponentially worse, and Kusama helps to prove this true.
XX, while overall a fun experience, can be a bit of a mixed bag, and at times it’ll test your patience and your resolve to stay in your seat until the lights come up. If you manage to stick it out through the end, you’ll get rewarded with some really fascinating and interesting filmmaking in the back half. Make no mistake: If you only have $20 and want to go see a horror movie this weekend, please go watch Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which is truly essential viewing. But if you’ve seen that already, and are inspired by it to support more filmmakers typically left out of the whites-only boys-only club that makes up much of genre filmmaking, I’d highly recommend you see this. It’s a pleasant antidote to the V/H/S’s of the world, and one that might actually help to rid some of the toxicity if enough people take a dose.
XX screens at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge from Friday, March 3 through Wednesday, March 8. In addition, XX is available for streaming on your preferred VOD platform right now.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.