Sundance 2017 Review: XX, Female-Helmed Horror Anthology Totally Rocks
Horror anthologies have been a big draw in the film world as long as there have been scary stories to tell, but it seems we've been a bit spoiled in recent years, with many of today's most interesting horror directors turning to the short collection format. That said, aside from a few notable exceptions, female directors have largely been left out of the fun. Let's face it, there are way too few women working as directors, full stop. But this is just as true in the genre space as any. So it's more than refreshing to see a small part of this wrong try to be righted with XX. This latest prominent horror anthology project sets out to tell four female-centric stories (plus the animated wrap-arounds), all directed by women. What's even better? They're all great... completely regardless of chromosomal makeup.
The anthology kicks off with Jovanka Vuckovic's The Box. Based on a Jack Ketchum story, the short stars Natalie Brown as Susan, a suburban mom with two very pleasant and well behaved children. On a train ride home from the city, young Danny (Peter DaCunha) peers inside a creepy dude's gift wrapped box and what he sees causes Danny to lose all sense of hunger. As days go by and Danny continues to refuse his food, life inside the family spirals out of control.
Working with children can be tricky but Vuckovic directs the kids with ease. What is really memorable about The Box is the super creepy atmosphere that prevails throughout. It begins with the unforgettably weird man on the train and continues through the bleak conclusion. Vockovic has a great sense of visual style and the way she uses the food imagery is bound to make you hungry as well.
Next up is Annie Clark's The Birthday Party (co-written with fellow XX director Roxanne Benjamin). It stars Melanie Lynskey as Mary, a rich woman preparing for her daughter's birthday, all the while making sure the party will be just as impressive for her neighbors as her child. But when Mary's husband turns up dead, it falls on Mary to keep her beloved's cadaver from raining on her daughter's big day.
The Birthday Party is pretty ridiculous from beginning to end. Annie Clark is best known as the musician and artist St. Vincent, but it's her visual artistry that's very much on display here. All of the characters have exaggerated wardrobe, hair, and makeup, from her daughter's outrageous birthday costume to her maid's plastic-looking hairstyle. This is a very fun piece, especially as things get more and more out of control.
The aforementioned Benjamin's Don't Fall is the third up and it's also quite possibly the scariest. The short follows a foursome of friends as they spend a day and night hiking through some beautiful desert terrain. But things start to get weird when one of them finds some creepy petroglyphs in a remote corner of the park. The group doesn't think much of it at the time, but when the sun goes down and something sinister descends on the camp, it quickly becomes clear that the friends did not heed the warning.
Benjamin did some great work in her segment of horror anthology Southbound, and her latest continues her hot streak. It features great performances by Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Casey Adams, and Morgan Krantz plus some awesome creature effects. It also has what is definitely the best jump scare of the film.
The fourth piece is by the director with the most feature experience, though not a ton of it is straight up horror. Karyn Kusama is probably best known for directing Girlfight and Aeon Flux, but last year's The Invitation was undoubtedly an awesome horror film. In her XX short Her Only Living Son, Kusama again gets to show off her suspense skills when a mother (played by Christina Kirk) tries to unravel the truth about why her son (Kyle Allen) begins to act more and more violent as he approaches his 18th birthday. Both Kirk and Allen turn in great performances but it's the tight script that allows this one to really succeed.
It would be unfair not to spare a few words of the amazing wrap around stop motion animation by Sofia Carrillo, which is reminiscent of the awesome 90s Tool videos. At first glance the toys/dollhouse theme don't link particularly thematically to the stories, but they're extremely cool regardless. That sense of coolness is present throughout all the work on display in XX. It's a very enjoyable and often scary anthology that shows a ton of promise from its directors. Let's get all of these women some feature work ASAP!
Full disclosure: XX is produced by Screen Anarchy founder/editor-in-chief Todd Brown. He was not involved with this review.