I was looking forward to XX because it was horror, it was an anthology, and because all four pieces were directed by women.
XX, directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark (St. Vincent), Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusuma. At the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA, through March 8.
By Peg Aloi
You don’t see many anthology movies: New York Stories was one, with shorts by Scorsese, Allen, and Coppola; Coffee and Cigarettes was a series of short vignettes by Jim Jarmusch, loosely linked by the objects in the title. Maybe you could count The Red Riding Trilogy, a UK production made up of three feature length films meant to be seen in succession. They were screened together in some theatres. But regarding horror anthologies, the best examples that come to mind are Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and, of course, the Twilight Zone movies.
I was looking forward to XX in part because it was horror, it was an anthology, and because all four pieces were directed by women. We definitely need to see more women in horror. The trailer was appealing; I immediately recognized the story line from Jack Ketchum’s haunting tale “The Box.” The latter is the first in the line-up, following a brief opening animation segment, eerie and beautiful, in which dolls populate spooky rooms. It is very evocative, as if Jan Svankmajer had animated some Cynthia von Buhler paintings. In truth, these animated sequences, which serve as interstitials between the quartet of stories, are the best thing about XX, and are well worth seeing if you like cool hand-crafted animation.
The Box is written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, adapted from Ketchum’s story. Natalie Brown plays Susan, a young suburban mother, and the story begins with her on a train with her two children after a day of Christmas shopping in New York City. Her son Danny asks a stranger seated next to him what’s inside his bright red gift-wrapped box, and the well-dressed man tells him it’s a present. He offers to show it to Danny, who looks inside the lifted lid and gets a puzzled expression on his face. Danny refuses to eat dinner that night, and this goes on for days. The doctor can find nothing wrong, and soon enough his sister, after a whispered conversation with Danny, refuses to eat.
Their parents are beside themselves. Susan’s angry husband asks how she can eat when their children are starving. Soon enough, after Danny whispers in his ear, hubby also refuses to dine. The original story features a male narrator; swapping the genders alters the narrative in an unusual way, putting the focus on intimate domestic routines that revolve around meals and cooking. Here the dad does most of the cooking, and he is one who seems much more worried than mom about the kids’ unexplained turn to starvation. The mystery inside the box turns out not to be scary or even mysterious — it is, perhaps, the stuff of existential dread. The episode is nicely unsettling.
The second story, The Birthday Party, is wildly different in tone, blackly comic. Directed by musician St. Vincent (credited as Annie Clark), it stars ubiquitous New Zealand actress Melanie Lynskey as Mary, a woman stressed out about her daughter’s birthday party. She’s somewhat obsessive and neurotic. She also has some unusual people in her orbit, including Carla (Sheila Vand, the Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), a personal assistant (?) with weirdly shellacked black hair, and a nosy neighbor who tries to tell Mary how to cater the party. Mary stays in her nightgown and silk robe all morning; she’s trying to hide the fact that her husband is unconscious (or maybe dead?) as well as deal with various small crises that pop up. She’s the only character with frizzy, imperfect hair. This detail is interesting, but neither it nor the other odd story elements lead to any pay off. The ending tries to put things in context via some vague subtitles. Initially, I found this segment intriguing because of its bizarre visual elements and clues, but it ultimately became unsatisfying and confusing.
The third story, Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, begins with four twenty-somethings hiking on a steep rockface. Gretchen (Breeda Wool from The Faith Diaries and other TV series) is a nervous type. Her friend startles her by barking out “don’t fall!” Gretchen’s brother and her friend’s boyfriend tease her about her fear of scorpions after an unseen critter stings her hand. They head back to their camp after discovering some unusual petroglyphs on the side of the rock cliff. In the middle of the night, Gretchen wakes up in a cave, her stung hand swollen and black and her body altered in disturbing ways. Her monstrous transformation (which is completely unexplained) puts her camping companions in danger and all hell breaks loose. I found this segment even more unsatisfying than The Birthday Party, because it has none of the other’s stylized wit. It felt more like conventional “horror” than the other three stories but, ironically, it was less scary overall, perhaps because it relied heavily on special effects and jump scares.
The final story was my favorite of the middling foursome. Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusuma (The Invitation), begins with a young woman who is dressed in pale blue. We can only see her from the shoulders up. She is obscured by masking of some sort and talking to her doctor, who hands her some money and says “people have agendas.” The woman mentions “little Andy or Jenny”; it seems that we are in Rosemary’s Baby territory (or, well, at least I suspected it). Eighteen years later, Rosemary has changed her name to Cora. She lives with her boy Andy in a rural community. Her friendly mailman chats her up, expressing concern about her teenage son. Andy is having trouble at school; he pulled off a girl’s fingernails. The principal is unconcerned, however, and says Andy is “special.” We realize that the conspiracy has followed Cora to wherever she lives now. She mentions that her husband, Andy’s father, is an actor who lives a decadent lifestyle and is never around. Andy rejects his mother’s protective meddling. The story’s set-up is promising, but apart from a few effective moments, where the colors of Roman Polanski’s film are echoed in pale yellow costumes and furnishings, opportunities for homage or satiric referencing are largely wasted. And the story ends clumsily.
Some of the writing was uneven, but the direction of all four pieces in XX was competent, and the acting impressive was throughout. I really enjoyed the interstitial animated pieces by Sofia Carrilo. I’d love to see more anthology horror pieces in the future, but the screenplays need to be more artful, the writing richer and sharper. There are many masters and mistresses of scary short form narratives whose work offers invaluable lessons: Rod Serling, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Bowen. Here’s hoping these filmmakers look more carefully at the literary roots of horror for future inspiration.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online.