XX is an anthology film, made up of four short horror films by female directors. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017. The films each run for around 20 minutes and range from slow building horror, to dark humour, to gore. Each are told from the perspective of a woman, and in three out of four films she is a mother.
A tired mother is taking her children home on the train after doing their Christmas shopping when a stranger sits down beside them with a box wrapped up like a present. The boy, Danny (Peter DaCunHa) asks to look in the box, but when asked by his sister what was inside he simply says "nothing". Later he refuses to eat anything, insisting that he isn't hungry as his parents grow more and more worried about him. Soon his sister stops eating too, eventually followed by his father, and his mother cannot understand why.
Apparently this short film was based on a story by Jack Ketchum that one the Bram Stoker Award. I suspect it loses something in the translation to film. It was sad, but didn't feel as creepy as I think it was supposed to, with the exception of a very disturbing dream sequence I don't want to spoil which invokes a macabre metaphor for motherhood.
The Birthday Party
Are creepy pandas a trend in horror movies now? This one's not quite so bad as the ones in Final Girl.
The Birthday Party was written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark, who also directed it. Mary (played by Melanie Lynskey, of Heavenly Creatures and Ever After), is a wealthy suburban mother preparing for her young daughter's birthday party when she discovers that her husband has accidentally overdosed in his home office. She spends the day trying to conceal his death from everyone so as not to ruin her daughter's birthday.
This segment has a much lighter tone than the other stories, making it more of a black comedy than a horror film. The final scene as the costumed children arrive and celebrate while the exhausted mother watches still in her nightie and dressing gown is surreal, and the sheer inevitability of the conclusion is oddly satisfying. Apparently this segment contains a cameo by Danny Elfman's taxidermied cat, Frisky.
Written and Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Don't Fall is a fairly straightforward monster movie. Four friends camp out in the desert where they find a mysterious neolithic painting on a rock wall. They are later attacked by a creature resembling something from the painting. One of the actresses, Angela Trimbur, is known for her performance in the horror comedy Final Girls (2015) so I suppose her inclusion here is an intertextual joke. The monster effects are well done, and reminded me a little of the creatures from The Descent (2005) but unfortunately this film suffers by comparison with that excellent horror flick. 20 minutes doesn't give the audience a lot of time to get to know or care about these characters before they are under attack.
Christina Kirk (of Powerless and A to Z) gives a terrific performance as Cora, a mother who has run away from her abusive ex to give her son a new start in life away from "people with agendas" who want to use her son for their own purposes. As Andy (Kyle Allen, who looks like a young Joseph Gordon Levitt) nears his 18th birthday he starts to exhibit strange and disturbing behaviour and Cora is warned that his "real father" will be coming to claim him soon.
This segment was by far the creepiest, and I really liked Cora's determined stand to protect her son.
The segments are framed by an odd stop frame animation sequences featuring a walking dollhouse, which reminded me of Jan Švankmajer's 1988 Alice, an incredibly creepy stop-frame adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
XX is an interesting collection of short horror films from some fresh voices in the horror genre. There are some interesting depictions of motherhood and families. None of the segments are likely to keep you from sleeping at night (unless you are afraid of dolls or pandas), but they do quite a lot within the limitations of time and budget, so they are worth watching.