The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
XX is a horror anthology more admirable for its intent and concept than for its execution. Made of four short films directed by female filmmakers, and bridged by disturbing stop-motion animation sequences by Sofia Carrillo, it’s a set of quick hits, which all share the unfortunate common thread of being more engaging in concept than execution. No short is longer than 20 minutes, which keeps XX diverting enough, but it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity given the talent on hand.
Given the female-first conceit of the project, it’s appropriate enough that each of the shorts trade on different manifestations of female fear. Of these, Annie Clark’s segment “The Birthday Party” is the most interesting, but it’s also the least like a horror story. At least, in the traditional sense; the artist better known as St. Vincent stages a child’s birthday party as a nightmare scenario from the vantage of an embattled mother (Melanie Lynskey), whose anxiety is near-debilitating and is only exacerbated when she discovers her ex-husband, dead, in the family study.
Clark walks a line between black comedy and nervous dread, and though the somewhat straightforward payoff lets a bit of steam out of the short’s panicked momentum, there’s a sharp bit of commentary to be found about the endless pressures assigned to mothers: politely tolerate invasive guests, give the kid everything she wants when she wants it, make sure there are no problems and that the illusion of domestic perfection is maintained. Lynskey does fine work in a role given little context beyond the initial premise, her entire presence askew in the face of horror, and it’s often funny in the bitterest ways. The child’s costume party ends up playing like a glossier take on the dinner sequence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by its end, and it’s the most effectively unnerving segment because of its incisive approach to socially assigned roles.
Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” feels more like a spec for a future feature-length project than a standalone short, with the Southbound director taking a quick and nasty trip through the “dope-smoking college kids die in the wilderness” subgenre. While the creature design is appropriately gangly and unsettling, the short escalates and concludes so quickly that there’s barely enough time to get invested. It plays like a riff on campfire slasher stories that isn’t self-aware enough to transcend basic tropes, and winds up the most forgettable of the bunch.
“Her Only Living Son” sees Karyn Kusama (of last year’s exceptional slow-burn thriller The Invitation) address motherhood in a similarly claustrophobic manner as Clark, following Cora (Christina Kirk) who grows increasingly concerned that something is seriously wrong with her son Andy (Kyle Allen) as he nears his 18th birthday. Her neighbors seem to know Andy a little too well, his teachers are unnervingly reluctant to levy any kind of punishment against him, and the parents of his peers have horror stories about his violent mistreatments. Yet it’s Cora’s undying loyalty to her son, no matter the circumstances, that blinds her to the brutal realities of Andy’s maturation until it’s well past too late.
As his behavior grows increasingly sociopathic and his treatment of his mother more hostile, Kusama finds the start of an interesting idea about youthful rage and violence serving as a gateway into the lifelong abuse of women (“He’s just growing up is all. He’s becoming a man”), but the concept takes a turn into more standard demon-seed territory as it unfolds, culminating in a dissatisfying conclusion that cuts the story off right when it could escalate into something wilder. Though Kusama’s gift for understated tension is on display, particularly in her use of buzzing flies for menacing subliminal effect, it’s an engaging enough piece, but one which dissipates from memory before long.
Though the beauty of short-form work is that the stories can be simpler, all of the XX shorts seem to wrap abruptly, whipping ahead before any of the anthology’s frequently interesting ideas can breathe. At least Jovanka Vuckovic’s take on Jack Ketchum’s short story “The Box” mines that short’s iconic Macguffin effectively, and the abrupt climax can be attributed to the vagaries of its source material. Ketchum’s story of a young boy who begins starving himself after looking into a stranger’s box on a subway train mines the existential terror of feeling left out from a secret that the rest of the world can understand, as Susan (Natalie Brown) struggles to understand why her son, and then her daughter, and then her husband are all starving.
Vuckovic does well in ratcheting up the segment’s paranoid horror, and if anything, the effects work on Susan’s withering family is far more unsettling than the one gory moment that sticks out like a sore thumb against the rest of the piece. “The Box” does well in addressing the very human fears of abandonment and parental failure, but lands as slight. The same could be said of XX at large; most have some interesting ideas, but none of them stand out in any kind of lingering way. At the very least, it’s a highly promising concept for a recurrent anthology series, and one that leaves plenty of room for growth in the future.