I want you to imagine a park bench. It’s a mahogany type, the kind of bench you would only come across within quaint British rom-com films, such as ‘Notting Hill,’ or ‘Love Actually.’ Basically any Richard Curtis film – replete with ivory bars and a golden shiny plague dedicated to Ethel, may God rest her soul. When you sit down you can feel the weight of it on your back. You take your shoes and socks off and feel the grass beneath your toes. Is it wet grass, maybe? Do the blades slip between your toes like small eels? Or perhaps it’s rough and coarse? A man sits next to you. He looks suspiciously like Tom Hanks. He’s dressed in a white jacket and trousers, but wears muddy trainers. He starts speaking and at first you think the mad buffoon is talking to himself – but then you cast a sideways glance and you realise his man-child head is looking right at you. His speech is slow and every word comes out in a southern drawl.
Then you notice the chocolates.
‘My mamma always said Horror Anthologies are like a box of chocolates,’ he says, prizing the box open to reveal severed fingers, maggots and a hideously large spider. He’s staring at you now, his wide, shark-like eyes boring into your very soul. ‘You never know what yer gonna get.’ There’s a small beat of silence as he offers the box to you. He’s already taken a caramel covered toenail for himself and looks at you expectantly. You shake your head, but you know you’ve made a fatal mistake. Tom Hanks starts spluttering the piece of fungal-ridden nail he’s been chewing on to the floor and starts foaming at the mouth. The sinister Tom Hanks leaps at you in the manner of a lithe jaguar, clawing at your abdomen with surprising accuracy. Moments later as you lie on the bench, you realise you’re going into shock. From your horizontal view you watch helplessly as he plays skipping rope with your intestines. The huge spider has run out of the chocolate box in crazy zig-zag motions and sits languidly on your head. The day was going so well, too…
That two-worded sentence above alone will either have you slamming the lid of your laptop down in a haughty manner, grumbling indignantly and tut-tutting to yourself that such pebbledash doesn’t deserve a place within cinematic history…or you’ll find your synapses going into overdrive and squealing with delight – the fact is most horror anthologies have always been a mixed bag: ‘Creepshow,’ ‘ABC’s of Death,’ ‘VHS,’ (which is now on its third follow-up film) and ‘Masters of Horror,’ all seem to share the same invariable divisive reactions – you’ll usually love some or one, think one is alright, maybe a few are below par…or you’ll simply hate them.
Which leads us to ‘XX’. The film has been made with four different creative voices, all from female directors. Each has an inspired premise within the genre from a wide variety of perspectives and influences. It’s a great idea, something that should be applauded and commended especially since the horror arena tends to be so male-dominated. Unfortunately there’s an unusual frustration that arises in XX’s inconsistencies – each segment has some great moments but there doesn’t seem to be a concurrent theme running throughout the 1hr 20mins. This can work in certain instances, but when you have one of the segments as a black comedy instead of horror, it starts to break off any resonance that had been built from the previous film. Each of the four segments is separated by beautifully atmospheric stop-motion animation from Sofia Carillo. It wasn’t until the end of the second short film that I actually found myself wanting to watch the stop motion more than the films themselves, which isn’t usually a good indication of the main feature. In these ethereal-shot pieces, we follow disturbing images of doll parts moving about on their own in a dilapidated mansion. A yarn ball is made into a heart, moths flutter menacingly and a creepy doll-house comes alive and stalks around. It’s unnervingly beautiful.
So, onto the main feature itself. First up is The Box, based on the Jack Kethum short story of the same name. Director Jovanka Vuckovic establishes a haunting tale of existential dread early on with stilted shots and taps into the fears of anxiety and motherhood. Out of the four features, this seemed to be the most Twilight Zone inspired, with a mother (played confidently by Natalie Brown) taking her son and daughter into Manhattan for a day of fun just before Christmas. On the train ride home, the boy is interested in a red box a fellow passenger is holding and asks what’s inside. The passenger allows him to take a peek and what the boy sees quietly dumbfounds him. Once they return home he refuses to eat anything, and by the third day his parents take him to the doctor. Whatever is eating at him slowly spreads through the family, like a virus or contagion.
The Box reminded me a lot of Pontypool, a great zombie film that didn’t really have zombies in it. The ‘Virus,’ or whatever machination the director uses to make people not eat was a great device, but the ending ultimately let this down, because just as the story was building to its crescendo it comes jarringly to an abrupt halt. There’s a fine balance of leaving the viewer with an ambiguous ending and sliding into cop-out-ville, so although this was a strong story, it stumbled at the finish line.
Next up is the quirkiest and most contrasting in tones. The Birthday Party has a simple premise – Melanie Lynskey plays a stressed mother called Mary. She thinks she’s planned the perfect birthday party for her 7-year-old daughter, but when she finds her husband dead in the study, it becomes a black comedy of ‘hide and seek’ with the body. The Birthday Party jarred with me. It started strongly – you can tell that something is clearly off, despite the immaculate, 70’s style nature of Mary’ modern home. Her brooding nanny seems to wield a power over her just with her mere presence. Director Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) clearly has an eye for colour and sound design, but the black comedy nature of this piece never seemed to click into place for me. It’s played for farce, and even though there’s an unconventional jump moment that works and has the ‘nightmarish white picket fence,’ domestically tone about it, it kind of made me feel that I’d invited a strange hobo into my house – for a moment you’re fascinated with his presence, watching the hobo eat at the table and making pleasant conversation, but you’re not quite relaxed and yourself…you’re aware that any moment the hobo may leap across the table like sinister Tom Hanks and disembowel you.
The third film, writer/director Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, is the most conventional creature feature, horror-schlock of the series, but it’s also the weakest. Four friends go on a camping trip in the desert, with the stereotypical weed smoker, the brains of the bunch, the nervous one and the stoic playful one. One of the women investigates noises in the middle of the night on her own with gruesomely bloody results. We never get to know the characters enough to care about their fates (you would never be friends with any of them) and it seems more like a film maker’s end of year project than anything else, which is a shame as the creature effects are notably and surprisingly well done – especially when you think about the low budget nature of XX as a whole.
Her Only Living Son, the last of the series and a clear riff on Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, stars Christina Kirk as a single mother living with her teenage son, Andy. She struggles to support them and they have little contact with the outside world besides her work and his school. But as Andy turns 18, the true nature of who he is—and why they live in such a sober, secluded world —begins to boil to the surface. Her Only Living Son is possibly the strongest acted and most disturbing of all the shorts, and when you consider that three of the short films here vaguely tackle the thematic views of the habitual female roles of mother, protector and wife – this one clearly establishes itself concerning maternal sacrifice or maternal anxiety.
Ultimately, how do you go about rating a movie that is contained within four short films? The Box and Her Only Living Son are the stand outs, but Don’t Fall and The Birthday Party bring it down to make it a deadlock. If you’ve got an hour and half spare, in the mood for horror and want to cheer on the empowerment of female directors in a mostly male driven environment, then you should give XX a chance. As anthologies go, there may be something you like in the mix. Just don’t accept chocolates from strange Tom Hanks look-a-likes – they may bite your goddamn head off.
Review by Anthony Self
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