XX (2016, dir. Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama)
Okay, horror anthologies. I keep wanting to love you but, dammit, you keep fucking it up. I was looking forward to this one quite a bit, much more than the last few anthologies I’ve sat down to view. It had only four films meaning we should have some good quality control, not flooding the picture with too many. You had Kusama has your big headliner and a first time director in the form of Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). One of the shorts was based on a great story by Jack Ketchum. The trailer had me hooked the first time I saw it. So what went wrong?
First Film: The Box (directed by Jovanka Vuckovic)
If you’ve read the Ketchum story, then this doesn’t stray at all from the source material. One afternoon, while riding the subway back from the city to their home in the suburbs, a family encounters a man with a brightly wrapped Christmas present. The young son asks to see what is in the box and the man obliges. He quickly leaves the train after revealing the contents to the boy, who sits in a state of confusion about what he saw. Once home, he says he’s not hungry and asks to be excused from the table. But then he refuses to eat for days and days. What was in the box that shifted his perspective on the world? Of the four, this is probably my favorite for entirely personally biased reasons. I love horror that skirts around the supernatural and is more an indefinable sense of bleak hopelessness. This is the closest to a NoSleep story, very open ended and the evil is very very ambiguity. Don’t expect things tied up in neat bows.
Second Film: The Birthday Party (directed by Annie Clark)
Without question my least favorite of the films in this collection. There is this thing about horror anthologies where you always have one film that is attempting to be a horror comedy. I HATE horror comedy because it always fails to be scary or funny, so instead of picking one genre, it ends up failing at both. The comedy in this one was so flat I felt embarrassed for the writer/director. The thing is I love St. Vincent. I’ve been listening to her work since Marry Me in 2007. I was very curious to see her contribution to the collection. But from the opening scene, I knew I was not going to click with the aesthetic and tone she was going towards. The story doesn’t seem to really have a sense of direction beyond one physical gag they keep coming back to. And then it just sort of ends and uses title cards in an attempt to get one last stretch of humor out of the piece. I wouldn’t write Clark off, though, some technical choices show she knows how to set up a shot so maybe next time, and with a feature or better script.
Third Film: Don’t Fall (directed by Roxanne Benjamin)
Benjamin was a producer behind last year’s Southbound and the sort of flagship anthology V/H/S, both of which I have very very mixed feelings about. This is your most straightforward traditional horror short. Four friends out in hiking in the American Southwest. They find some strange cave paintings on a cliff wall detailing a couple human figures and something more menacing. They laugh it off. Chaos ensues. The film is shot very well, and the monster effects are quite good. The biggest problem is that it’s too short, and that’s an issue for the whole film. XX clocks in at only 80 minutes. I wouldn’t have minded if they had added 30 more minutes and allowed a short like this some breathing room and time to build atmosphere. If you want a monster menacing people, then you don’t have to wait long with Don’t Fall. We’re sort of introduced to the characters and then BOOM monster running around killing people.
Fourth Film: Her Only Living Son (directed by Karyn Kusama)
I’ve only seen one feature by Kusama, The Invitation, but it made my Favorite Films of 2016 list. I was excited to see this but knew to temper those expectations because with most anthologies directors aren’t doing their greatest work. There’s a lot of great potential in this short. A single mother is preparing for her son’s eighteenth birthday. There’s something off about the kid, and she is called to his school for a meeting with the principal. Apparently, he tore the fingernails off a fellow student, but shockingly the administration plans to do nothing, in fact, they admire her son. As the story unfolds, it goes in an obvious route and references a classic horror film about a mother. The atmosphere building it quite well at the start and that meeting at the school sets such a creepy, unsettling tone. But, the way the film wraps up feels a little too on the nose, and I couldn’t help but think some potential had been missed.
So, overall another horror anthology that falls somewhere in the middle. Not a disaster, but nothing I would hurry to see. Lots of potential and great creators on board but something happened so that it didn’t hit any new heights.