XX (2017)

*. XX is an anthology horror film, and judged alongside its peers I’d rate it above average. That’s a slightly backhanded compliment, as most such movies aren’t very good. But I thought each of the four separate stories here worth watching, with at least one of them being a lot of fun. The tendency in the 2010s has been for horror anthologies to speed things up with a lot of very short films (think of the V/H/S, P.O.E., or ABCs of Death series). The stories here, however, all come in feeling just the right length.
*. The other thing about XX is that each of the four stories was written and directed by a woman and women play all the leading roles. That’s where the title comes from, with the double-X chromosones.
*. This seems like a good idea, as it lets a group of young women filmmakers showcase their work in the horror genre. But is there anything more to it? Do the results suggest any particular female (or feminist) vision?
*. Well, maybe. In an interview included with the DVD Karyn Kusama (who directed the last episode) mentions being drawn toward “the domestic dynamics of horror.” And it’s true that three of the four stories put the family in the foreground, with key scenes set around dining-room or kitchen tables. In each of these films a mother is the main character, and she has to deal with what are typical anxieties of motherhood, albeit imagined in scarier ways.
*. First up is “The Box,” which is the one film that isn’t an original story but is based on the Jack Ketchum story of the same name. I thought this was nicely done, with director Jovanka Vuckovic creating an effectively creepy atmosphere. There’s no big payoff, but that’s the story, which takes the form of a puzzle without a solution. Basically the kids have developed an eating disorder that their mom is unable to address, as she is shut out from their inner lives. Most parents know the feeling. Even without their falling sick we might expect her to crack up from the repetition of “nothing,” which becomes the film’s refrain of Nevermore.
*. Second is “The Birthday Party” (directed by Annie Clark). I liked this the best. It’s another take on the “how can I hide this body?” premise much loved as a source of black humour. Again we have a mother overwhelmed: this time having to manage a child’s birthday party on the same day as her husband’s suicide. The sinister nanny with a spooky hairdo is no help, but a singing Pandagram seems to offer a solution. I thought the sound and music were a little over the top here, but I guess they were meant to be.

*. Third is “Don’t Fall.” Director Roxanne Benjamin (she produced the V/H/S films) wanted a traditional “creature feature” campfire tale and got it, complete with cheesy dialogue referencing some cursed petroglyphs that are “clearly pre-Native American.” It’s well done, but the basic idea and how it plays out, including the look of the monster itself, isn’t that interesting. I thought it needed a twist.
*. Fourth is “Her Only Living Son” (directed by Karyn Kusama). Rosemary’s baby has grown up (and apparently John Cassavetes has made it big in Hollywood). I just thought this was OK. The parental anxiety is the teenager acting up at school and home. The devil, we learn, is no match for a smother mother.
*. There’s also some stop-motion puppet work by Sofia Carrillo that plays in-between the separate stories. I’d call it a frame, but it’s not since there’s no connection between it and the other parts of the movie. There’s also no narrative. It looks great, but I honestly couldn’t figure out what the point of any of it was.
*. XX had a limited release, and seems to have done a lot better with critics than it did with audiences. That seems weird to me. As I began these notes by saying, it’s a better movie than most of its peers. What are people comparing it to?
*. Another weird thing I noticed when going through the reviews was that there is so much disagreement among critics about which of the stories is the best. This leads me to believe that I may have missed something in the ones I didn’t care as much for. For the record, I liked “The Box” and “The Birthday Party,” but thought the second two fell a bit short.
*. I don’t think there’s much of a political point being made, or empowering message to be absorbed. But for genre fans I don’t think it needs one. They may in fact like it better that way.

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