Movie Review: XX – selling itself on the gender of the moviemakers, this horror anthology barely rises above mediocre

Horror anthology movies go back decades.  It’s true, kids!  Further back in time than the V/H/S franchise, there was Tales From The Darkside The Movie, a little while before then, Creepshow – a decade before that Amicus played around with Tales From The Crypt, and The House That Dripped Blood.  The format has been around for a long time, and has its origins in the famous EC Comics of the 1950s.  It’s likely to be with us for some time too, but the stories have evolved over the years.  I just finished watching one of the latest such movies, XX – billed with the header “Four Deadly Tales By Four Killer Women”.  What’s this, a feminist horror anthology?

The answer is no, not at all.  The sell here is that the movie is primarily made by women, and each of the four stories feature prominent female characters, but there’s no hint of feminism in any of the content.  Some might be frustrated to hear that (I was), some less so.  I don’t know if the intent was to throw together female writers and directors and somehow imply a feminist production, so I won’t criticize the producers – what I CAN criticize is the quality of the stories within the movie, and unfortunately there’s a lot to criticize.

But first, what’s good?  Well, the movie looks great.  Nice, clear cinematography and lighting, all 80 minutes look uniformly fantastic.  It looks expensive too, not cheap video.  I imagine it was shot in total for way less than $1 million, but the money was well used in all the right places.  The four stories are well directed too, and each of them have a distinct identity in terms of content and style, and finally, the acting is pretty high quality too.  None of the actors in this movie are household names, (though some are recognizable), and most of them are not ever likely to be, but like most indie features worth their salt, the acting caliber is strong and authentic.

The trouble here is all in the writing.  It’s all over the place, ranging from decent to awful, with some head-scratching narrative developments.  Nothing new here – the one thing that anthologies share is the fact that they’re a mixed bag.  I don’t know if I’ve encountered one which was uniformly excellent throughout, but some movies are more consistent than others.  XX suffers from a real lack of consistency that strips much of the value from it.  But, without further ado:

The Box, adapted from the Jack Ketchum short story by Jovanka Vuckovic, is the best of the four, I thought, but the narrative feels inert, and some of the character work in the script is baffling.  In this story, the youngest child of a nuclear family of four is given a peek into a gift box while riding home on the train.  Soon after, he begins to lose his appetite and refuses to eat, putting the mother and father into conflict.  The acting here is very good throughout, but I was mystified by the behavior of the mother when things becoming increasingly bad with the son.  The lack of passion the story forces upon the character, with no real reasoning, makes the narrative phony, and there’s a real disconnect in the flow of the story, which slips into a non linear format in a manner I felt was clumsy and amateurish.  Some nice gore effects in this segment, but it’s not representative of the story.

The Birthday Party is the worst segment by far.  While it isn’t badly made or acted, the story is really out of place tonally here.  It plays like some kind of modern farce, typical of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, believe it or not, with not one hint of horror during its entirety.  Written by Roxanne Benjamin, a producer in the V/H/S franchise, as well as the superior Southbound anthology, and Annie Clark, (and directed by Clark), this segment is notable for the actress Sheila Vand, who was a standout in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but wasted here in a small role, and Melanie Lynskey, from 1994’s Heavenly Creatures.  It features Lynskey as a woman who discovers her husband is dead on the day of their daughter’s birthday party, and her struggle to conceal the body.  Yep, that’s the story.  In a horror movie.  Jumping into the torrid waters of objectifying women, I admit to spending most of the time watching this story wondering when Lynskey was going to fall out of her low cut dressing gown.  Hardly my fault: the woman’s cleavage is front and center in most of the shots, a choice I found weird.  This segment’s inclusion is a spectacular misfire and doesn’t work at all.

Second weakest of the four is Don’t Fall, a story about four young adults who go camping in what looks like the southwest, and upon discovering some mostly innocuous cave paintings in a mostly non-creepy scene, find themselves at the mercy of one of them when she becomes possessed and turns into some kind of monster.  This story is paper thin, and doesn’t offer much of anything new or interesting within the genre.  Ok, I can give The Birthday Party propers for having the gall to try something different in a horror movie, but Don’t Fall actually has the weakest story and acting.  Roxanne Benjamin pulls double duty here, writing and directing, but the segment never rises above blandness.  None of the characters are remotely interesting, and the situation is something you’ve seen dozens of times.  Monster chases, monster kills, end of.  I get it that they only have 20 minutes, and shorts are really hard to make, but this story felt like it was scribbled on a napkin in Insomnia at Beverly and Poinsettia.  While they were waiting for the check.

Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, who directed The Invitation – a feature length movie I enjoyed that plays like an anthology segment – starts off pretty well.  Scratch that – most of it is pretty good.  It just happens to fall apart in the last five minutes.  This story is about a single mother living in one of those awesome 40s homes in the LA burbs, struggling to deal with her sullen and withdrawn son on the eve of his eighteenth birthday.  A key scene set during a visit to the school principle plays the segment’s cards too early, but the scene itself is good.  From that point on, though, it mostly fumbles its way to a weak cop out kind of ending, when the brave choice would have been to embrace the major plot point, not message it away.  Kusama already hugged her major plot point in The Invitation to a very satisfying climax, but lets the story ebb away here.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the fine and creepy stop motion sequences that fills in the gaps between the stories.  They’re beautiful in a Dave McKean-meets-Toy Story way, but mostly pointless as they don’t serve in the capacity of a framing story.  Great to look at, but they’re distracting because they don’t add to, or transform, understanding of the narrative.

The Box – 3.0/5.0

The Birthday Party – 1.0/5.0

Don’t Fall – 1.0/5.0

Her Only Living Son – 2.5/5.0

Overall rating: 1.5/5.0

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