Wednesday, August 2, 2017

XX (2017)

It’s time for another horror anthology. XX’s particular selling point is that its four episodes are exclusively directed by women, which at the very least makes a nice contrast to bro horror (though at least one of the producers and directors involved is rather ironically involved in the VHS franchise which to me – next to the films of Eli Roth – epitomises this particular sub-genre). The stories are connected by wonderfully macabre animated interstitial segments by Sofìa Carrillo.

Story number one, “The Box”, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, and based on a story by Jack Ketchum, starts the film off very nicely. It’s a creepy and deceptively calmly told tale seen through the eyes of a mother (Natalie Brown) in one of those super-traditional suburban rich (what Americans tend to call middle-class but which certainly isn’t) families, whose little son (Peter DaCunha) suddenly stops eating after having had a look in a mysterious box carried by a stranger. The demonstrative family harmony frays, particularly since the knowledge of what is in the box seems to work like an infectious disease.

This one might be my favourite episode of the anthology, thanks to not just the fine cast but also to Vuckovic’s subtle direction that elegantly swerves around the most obvious interpretations of the tale. That doesn’t make these interpretations wrong, it just robs them of explanatory monopoly. Vuckovic keeps up a growing feeling of dread turning this into the movie version of really good contemporary weird fiction, or a nightmare.

The second segment “The Birthday Party” was directed by Annie Clark whom you’ll probably know better under her nom de plum as a musician, St. Vincent. On the visual, design and acting level, this darkly comedic little tale of an even richer suburban housewife’s (Melanie Lynskey) attempt to hide the suicide of her husband so as not to spoil her daughter’s birthday party is rather successful. On a less technical level, the story did little for me. There’s just too little substance to it as a story, and the message of “suburban housewives are neurotic because they are under enormous pressure” is not exactly news, nor does the segment really add anything – say emotional resonance – to that message.

The third segment “Don’t Fall” by Roxanne Benjamin changes tack completely by being a pretty to look at but short and pedestrian bit of monster filler that feels like something that didn’t make the cut in one of the other contemporary horror anthologies. There’s too little to it even for the low standards of something like the VHS films. It’s not, mind you, in any way, shape, or form, an incompetently made tale, it’s just terribly uninvolving in its competence, and as shallow as a campfire tale.

Fortunately, the film does find its feet again with Karyn Kusama’s unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby and similar tales, “Her Only Living Son”. The segment about a mother (Christina Kirk) finally facing up to who - or what - her son (Kyle Allen) is when he turns eighteen has quite a bit of fun with winking and nudging towards the films it thinks further. It also picks up two finely realized scenes of paranoia on the way, and expresses rather more complex thoughts about the idea of motherhood and motherly love in extremis than horror films usually do, while also just being an effective horror story.

So, while one segment leaves me cold and another one feels like pure filler to me, the two good segments of XX are so well done, the film still is one of the best entries into the contemporary minor wave of horror anthologies. While I’d have been even happier if all four segments had worked for me, two brilliant segments, wonderful interstitial animations, and no bad segments do make for a very satisfying anthology.

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