Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Sofia Carrillo
Opens February 17
Though the anthology film has stretched across different genres, horror’s in the running for most creative in terms of framing devices: V/H/S sees a narrative in which people actually unearth the found footage they show off; Tales From The Darkside features a kid stalling time by feeding stories to hungry witch Debbie Harry; Twilight Zone: The Movie, the only time we’ve ever seen directors like Spielberg and Landis at the height of their clout, rests on Dan Aykroyd’s really scary shoulders. XX, with a poster wielding a very femme set of lips forming a skull to advertise a horror/science-fiction quadruple feature, floats a simple premise: four female filmmakers directing female-led stories. That’s a strong selling point despite an industry that, regardless of genre or Kathryn Bigelow’s trophies, fails to reward female directors with, god forbid, creative freedom. Despite the rare gems like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook or Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there’s a shrinking number of female filmmakers given access healthy budgets (a great roadmap to this: Film Forum’s “Genre is a Woman” series). But the final product is a poor representation of what can be offered—at only eighty minutes, the talents displayed are too inconsistent to match the promise. Not that their stylistic ranges shouldn’t clash—in fact, they make XX more intriguing—but the limitations imposed by budget, length, and special effects only remind of the bad deal that comes with hardwired inequality.
Despite marketing claims, there are really five heads at play here—left off the marquee is Sofia Carillo, whose stop-motion interstitials form a creepy narrative of their own, mostly centered around a many-chambered doll’s house with a doll’s face. It connects the four stories, all of which riff on the home, the ever-prevalent arena for scream queens. The first is Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” which, despite also containing a fedora-wearing dude with a creepy eye and wrapped gift, has nothing to do with Richard Kelly’s The Box. On a train, a boy peeks into said gift, only to walk away with a continually alarming lack of appetite. What at first seems to promise hard-digging themes—the question of whether a mother should provide for others before herself, for one—ends before letting enough substance develop. Natalie Brown, as the boy’s mother, does well with acting anxious over the prospect of her family literally wasting away, but her psyche-probing narration—and Vuckovic’s distanced direction—offers little. Too many routes are embarked upon here, but never completed. “I’m hungry,” Brown says at the end of her segment. It’s the only time XX seems to get on the audience’s level.
Melanie Lynskey hosts a goofier kind of anxiety in Annie Clark’s segment. Clark, the musician behind St. Vincent, has long generated visual quirk—for example, the bright minimalism of Actor’s album art, the subtle grotesqueries of Love This Giant, the subsequent live performances with David Byrne—and her short “The Birthday Party,” her first narrative film, is a fresh break from the previous segment’s self-serious creepy kids and shadowy reflections. Lynskey is a mother, too, but one with a secret of her own: her hubby’s knocked off and she’s gotta parcel him out before her daughter’s birthday party, making for a surreal and satirical spin on Tales From The Crypt’s “And All Through The House,” even if the tone’s more Robert Zemeckis than Freddie Francis. It’s all during the day, inviting the bright pallette that defines Clark’s brand. She’s clearly taken some cues from the creepy symmetry composing her music videos. Though the eventual punchline is solid, the journey depends less on shock and buildup than the exaggerated mood. The creeps return for Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall,” a true-church slasher with dumb stoned kids treading upon Native American ghosts. Though current political discussions have revolved around similarly privileged people treating Standing Rock like Burning Man, Benjamin crafts an unfinished work, or an extended trailer for a Cabin in the Woods-style scenario: during a camping trip with an RV (put a dark house that nobody should run into on wheels—nice), one of the women is possessed after pissing off the wrong ancient spirit. Following “The Birthday Party,” “Don’t Fall” helps complete a sugary center that finds some needed, if still obvious, jolts before a stellar fourth act.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, from last year, reminds what can be done with just a house full of old friends and a handful of creepy cultish beliefs. “Her Only Living Son,” XX’s finale, continues with that recipe for a more stripped-down work. Like a prolonged coda to Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, Kusama’s bit is the most complete. The subtext of mother Christina Kirk not knowing her eighteen-year-old baby boy anymore is a real fear for parents, even if they remember what it’s like to be a pissed-off young adult who hates being smothered. That subtext’s shown through mysterious pools of blood and visits from friendly neighborhood people who may just be creepy in Kirk’s own imagination, but luckily that’s not the case. The veteran of the bunch, Kusama satisfies where the preceding entries fail, knowing how to use her brief allotment with a superbly tense and terse mother-son relationship, plus a lively-before-bleak finale. It’s like Robert Munsch’s children’s book Love You Forever, but with the gorier parts put back in.