Monday, February 20, 2017

Review: XX

by Patrick Bromley
Five directors. Four stories. One anthology perfect for Women in Horror Month.

I can't believe it's 2017 and I have to just now be excited about the fact that we finally have a horror anthology film directed by all women. It bums me out that I have to introduce a review of said anthology by pointing out the fact that it's the first of its kind, though I guess both the title of the movie and all of its marketing absolve me of that by leading with that hook. I get it. This is a big deal and should be celebrated. I just look forward to a time when it's the norm -- when a horror film doesn't have to announce the gender of its filmmakers as a way of setting itself apart and hopefully signaling progress.

I hold none of this against the five directors involved with XX, nor with the producers who helped put the film together. The fault lies in horror fandom and in every producer who ever turned down this or any such similar idea. It's too easy for something like XX to be labeled an experiment -- a novelty that everyone applauds and talks about during Women in Horror Month and before proceeding to ignore women in horror for the remaining 11 months. XX should not be the culmination of efforts made by so many female filmmakers in the genre. XX should be just the beginning.

But enough of my soapbox ranting, as I suspect no one has come to this review of XX for a lecture about issues of gender representation in horror (though I would argue that without these issues, maybe XX doesn't need to become a thing...and there I go again.). A collaboration between five female filmmakers -- Jovanka Vukovic, Annie Clark (aka musician St. Vincent), Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama and Sofia Carrillo, who directs the anthology's gorgeous stop-motion wraparound segments -- XX is another in a recent run of really strong, really interesting anthologies that represent so much of what is exciting about current independent horror. While I don't think the movie features a true standout sequence, I don't think there's a weak link, either. And seeing as how consistency is one of the greatest obstacles most horror anthologies must face -- most of them unsuccessfully, it should be noted -- the fact that XX is able to keep the quality control up from start to finish should not go unmentioned.
First up is "The Box," adapted from the great Jack Ketchum's story of the same name by Jovanka Vukovic. It centers on a woman (Natalie Brown) who is riding the train home with her two kids one day next to an unusual looking man holding a large red gift box. The boy (Peter DaCunha) asks to look inside. The man obliges. The boy seems rattled but ok. From that point on, he will no longer eat, always insisting that he isn't hungry. Things eventually get worse. That's what happens in horror movies.

The second installment, "The Birthday Party," which marks the directorial debut of rock star St. Vincent and is co-written by her and Roxanne Benjamin, follows a suburban mother (Melanie Lynsky) preparing a birthday party for her daughter and discovering that her husband has died suddenly in the house. Rather than ruin the day, she does her best to cover up the problem until the party is over. Benjamin goes it alone as writer and director of "Don't Fall," the third entry in XX and the only one that aims for balls-out horror. A group of friends camp for a night in the desert, discovering some strange cave paintings that depict some sort of monster. Before you can say "don't fall," one of the women is possessed by said monster and begins attacking her friends. Finally there's "Her Only Living Son" from Karyn Kusama, in which a single mother (Christina Kirk) grows concerned about the behavior of her son (Kyle Allen) as he turns 18 and begins asking questions about the identity of his father -- questions best answered with a viewing of a certain Roman Polanski film.
Beyond simply offering the chance to see more work from several prominent female voices in horror (well, Annie Clark isn't prominent in the genre yet but she acquits herself here), what's special about XX is that it's an anthology that feels like it could have only been made by women. Three of the four segments in XX deal directly with motherhood, albeit in very different ways. "The Box" is all about the creeping dread of helplessness -- watching a child get sick (for lack of a better word) and being totally powerless to make a difference. "The Birthday Party," the most overtly comedic of the four (which doesn't take much, as the other segments are all quite grim), deals with trying to maintain the illusion of happiness for the sake of a child and the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her family from the ugly realities of the world. Karyn Kusama's "Her Only Living Child" is the movie's biggest emotional gut punch, focused on the unique bond between mother and child, culminating in an incredible monologue delivered by Christina Kirk that brings the themes to the forefront and gives the segment its lasting impact.

That leaves Roxanne Benjamin's "Don't Fall" as the movie's orphan -- the one that stands apart because it's not really about anything but being an exercise in terror. That doesn't make it any less as a short taken on its own, but it does make it feel somewhat out of place in XX and suggests the need for the anthology to have either more thematic consistency or less. There's a connective tissue that runs through most of the movie that I believe happened mostly by coincidence, but it's not present in "Don't Fall" and both the segment and the overall movie suffer as a result. Again, this is not mean to be a knock on the work that Benjamin does -- if this was just released as a short film, I would have nothing to complain about -- but just that its placement within the movie draws attention to the fact that it doesn't interact with the other segments particularly well.
Like a handful of other recent indie horror anthologies, XX offers the opportunity for fans of the genre to either see some of their favorite current filmmakers working in another form or to be exposed to new voices and hopefully be encouraged to go check out more work. It's consistent in that there aren't any weak segments, though the segments don't all function as well within the larger anthology. If XX has me excited, it's mostly because it feels like a necessary step in the right direction: a platform for female filmmakers that we can only hope will ultimately be received as a strong horror anthology that just happens to be directed by women. At the very least, maybe it will lead to XXII (please use that title, producers), because there were three goddamn V/H/S movies and I would like to see this become a series. I've even got some filmmakers I'd like to recommend for the next installment. Call me.

XX is currently playing in limited release and is available to rent on VOD and iTunes.


  1. Great review, Patrick. I loved it, probably more than it deserves, but I had such a great time watching it and thought every story balanced out the other. It's my favorite anthology since last year's "Southbound".

  2. Great review! Luckily, the Music Box is playing this all week so I got to see it on the big screen last night.
    I agree that it feels like a uniquely female film--thematically, yes, but even in the way it's shot. It's something I can't quite put my finger on, but i felt it. Maybe it's some sort of preconception that I had knowing it was all female-directed, but I feel like I would have been able to tell even if I hadn't known. Or maybe not. I don't know. Not my favorite anthology, but I'm glad I got to see it on the big screen.

  3. I'm excited to see this, we don't get enough Anthologies and this one is special, I'm also happy to see anything from Karyn, The Invitation is my favourite film from last year

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