By Jared Huizenga – Contributing Writer
There are three things that are almost exclusive to the horror genre that make me cringe more than almost anything else: surprise knife/machete/other random sharp object attacks to the eyes; found footage films; and anthologies.
So, I was a tad skeptical when I got word that Magnolia Pictures would distribute the anthology “XX” through its Magnet Releasing branch.
I warmed to the idea, however, for a couple of reasons. First, Magnolia/Magnet was responsible for “The Eyes of My Mother,” which, despite some eye stuff, was one of my favorite horror films of 2016. Second, all five directors involved in the project are women, and I’ve found women seem to have a pretty firm grasp of the genre.
“XX” consists of four individual, unconnected short stories that are bound together by a handful of stop-motion dollhouse segments (directed by Sofia Carrillo) that are creepy enough to make early Tim Burton imagery seem toddler-friendly.
The first segment is “The Box” by writer/director Jovanka Vuckovic. The story focuses on a mother and son who are approached on the train by an old man with a mysterious box. After looking at the box’s contents, the young boy begins to change. Eventually, those changes carry over to the other members of the family.
Vuckovic did a masterful job of creating an intense, mysterious and scary story without relying on jump scares or gore … this is what more genre directors should aim to accomplish.
Next up is “The Birthday Party,” which is directed by Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) and co-written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin.
In “The Birthday Party,” anxiety-ridden mother Mary is attempting to throw the best birthday party ever for her young daughter, Lucy. But things take a turn for the worse when Mary finds her husband dead in his office. Between the corpse, a nosy neighbor, her anxiety and the family’s cold-blooded nanny, Mary must use everything in her bag of tricks to make sure the party isn’t something that scars her daughter for life.
“The Birthday Party” segment wasn’t bad, but it had a couple of things going against it. “The Box” not only set the tone for what I was looking for from the other films, but it set the bar very, very high. Tonally, “The Birthday Party” had more comedic and dramatic beats to it than it did horror or even thriller. Essentially, it was a movie with a corpse – a less funny and equally scary “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
Next up was the supernatural splatter segment “Don’t Fall” – written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.
“Don’t Fall” features four twenty-something friends hiking in the desert when they happen upon ancient cave paintings that appear to indicate that an evil spirit inhabits, or at least previously inhabited the area. After setting camp, the group discovers that the spirit is still around.
“Don’t Fall” is pretty typical genre fare – some shocking moments meant to make the audience jump; enough gore to make some look away, but not so much as to alienate a large segment of the population; and the true and tested plot device of the ancient spirit attacking a group that it feels is encroaching on its realm.
It’s not a great segment, but it’s short and to the point, and I’ve seen much worse ideas get turned into full-length features.
Wrapping things up is the Karyn Kusama-led thriller “Her Only Living Son.”
In the days leading up to her son Andy’s 18th birthday, single mother Cora starts noticing changes in him. He’s becoming cruel and violent to those around him, and distant toward her. Making matters worse, nobody seems willing to discipline or even talk to him about his actions. In fact, despite his newfound psychotic violence, the people of the town seem to revere Andy and are convinced he is destined for greatness. What do these people know that Cora doesn’t? The answer is something darker than she’d ever want to imagine.
“Her Only Son” was the other standout segment in “XX.”
It keeps you guessing, there’s legitimate tension throughout and the story, while far-fetched in the real world, doesn’t come off as trying too hard or overreaching within the genre. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel or anything, but it’s a nice little story with a number of subtle nods to classic films that paved the way.
The best part, I think, is that “XX” has given – or expanded – the voices of talented female writers and directors.
Benjamin has served as a producer on a number of films, but this marks only her second time as a writer and director – the first coming in last year’s “Southbound.”
Vuckovic should be able to use her segment to jump from writing and directing shorts into bigger things, should she choose that route.
For Clark, known better for her music, her segment was her first as a writer or director and shows plenty of promise going forward.
Kusama is the highest-profile director here, with credits including “Jennifer’s Body,” “Girlfight,” “Æon Flux,” and most recently episodes of “Billions,” “The Man in the High Castle,” “Halt and Catch Fire.”
Regardless their experience, each shows a knack for storytelling that will hopefully be recognized and rewarded.
Overall, “XX” is much better than most anthologies I’ve sat through and much better than I expected it to be. It sandwiches two decent, but undistinguished, stories with two standouts that I’d wait in line to watch if they expanded them to feature-length films. Most anthologies I’ve been privy to are lucky to have one semi-decent segment.
★★★1/2 of ★★★★★
Jared Huizenga is a freelance movie critic. Follow his work at www.facebook.com/JaredMovies.