The level of buzz surrounding XX has certainly outstripped anything greeting a portmanteau genre piece such as this for a while. Screened to much fanfare recently at London’s renowned Prince Charles Cinema, this all-girl horror anthology is riding a wave of goodwill as it spotlights female talent and gives voice to a group of artists generally lacking the opportunities of their male counterparts.
It’s a four-movie ensemble piece entirely directed by women, written or adapted by women, and featuring women in all the principal acting roles. With controversies regarding opportunities in movie-making (or lack of) for anyone not white and male continuing to simmer, the appearance of a movie that is thematically and, in terms of its production, explicitly women-focused is an exciting prospect.
In many respects though, an exciting prospect is all it remains, as the finished product finds itself getting swamped by some of the same pitfalls often found within the anthology movie. A mixed bag of stories lacking a cohesive narrative or a really strong sub-textual thread leaves XX feeling like something of a missed opportunity. It’s a quartet of pretty middling horror shorts that, while showing a fair degree of promise, never really capitalise on interesting set-ups. With female-focused and female-created horror flourishing recently in the form of The Babadook (2014), Raw (2016) and The Love Witch (2016), it’s hard not to feel a sense of disappointment here.
Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box kicks things off by aiming for low-key psychological torment but coming away with only a mildly interesting sense of apprehension. Adapting Jack Ketchum’s short story, a curious young boy asks for a peek inside a man’s decorative box while riding the subway, only to find himself in a petrified state of abstinence. Seemingly terrified by whatever he has seen, the boy refuses all sustenance leading to familial strife and eventually something more finite. The portrait of a family on the edge of disaster is intriguing, but it’s never supported with a flourish. Vuckovic’s short may well work in longer format but, pushed for time, it lacks development and you can feel it just sort of dissolve into a lacklustre exploration of questionable parenting.
The Birthday Party by Annie Clark follows with what is essentially a brief re-tread of Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). A harassed mother planning for a children’s party finds her husband dead in the house and, jettisoning all logic, in the horror movie tradition, attempts to hide the body in plain sight as the guests arrive. Played for laughs, this another fairly slight offering that never feels like it grows into anything larger than a one-off gag with no payoff. It feels like something that may have been suggested at an Inside No. 9 brainstorming session but abandoned due to its lack of substance.
Third, and probably the best, is a routine piece of schlock called Don’t Fall which plays out something like a demonic version of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), as a quartet of impressionable teenagers go camping and fall foul of a nondescript creature. Obviously produced on a tight budget, this is decent, if not astounding, fun. The brief but welcome sight of some body-horror lifts what is, again, something pretty slim. As with its predecessors though, it doesn’t grow into anything more than a competent set-up and seems to end a narrative beat too soon.
Their Only Living Son rounds off the short, sub-80 minute terror mezze, with probably the most psychologically interesting of the four shorts. Like a less subtle and nuanced and more literal adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Karyn Kusama’s finale sees a perturbed mother worried about her teenage sons apparently burgeoning monstrosity as he grows more uncontrollable and violent.
With a few of the principal women seeming like marginalised characters, there’s a small sense that all four shorts are attempting to linger on a maternal sense of dread, or toy with the idea of postpartum malaise and insidiousness. The drawback is, whenever you feel like a story is beginning to hit its mark, it gets cut short. The earlier reference to Inside No. 9 is apt, as its within a such a show that you can see what can really be done with a limited running time. XX is optimistic and freewheeling in its intent, but hamstrung and underwhelming in execution.
XX was released on DVD in the UK on 8th May, 2017.
Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Jovanka Vuckovic
Writers: Jack Ketchum, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, St. Vincent, Jovanka Vuckovic
Stars: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Melanie Lynskey, Casey Adams, Breeda Wool,
Christina Kirk, Brenda Whele
Runtime: 80 mins
Country: Canada / USA