Friday, February 17, 2017

Tales from the Ovaries: Half-good "XX" showcases unheard voices

XX (2017)
81 min., rated R.

The mere conception of a horror anthology film with all of its short-form segments written, produced, and directed by women (and three of them from the point-of-view of a mother) is an exceedingly exciting achievement. Better late than never, huh? With there being something of a renaissance for horror anthologies in the indie world, it’s about time we get “XX”—titled after the genetic chromosomes required to make up the female gender—even if a few of the filmmakers’ contributions land the setups more than the payoffs. There are four stories here rather than eight (2016’s “Holidays”) or twenty-six (2013’s “The ABCs of Death” and 2014’s “ABCs of Death 2”), so that lessens the chances of there being many weak pieces or an erratic whole. Conceptually, “XX” has the right idea, and half the time, the grim morsels of this distaff sampler are pretty terrific, while the other two don’t make a lasting impression in the end.

"XX" starts strong with “The Box,” arguably one of the better segments, written for the screen and directed by short filmmaker Jovanka Vucokis. Based on a story by Jack Ketchum, this short begins around Christmastime when mother Susan Jacobs (Natalie Brown) is headed back home to the suburbs on a train after a day in the city spent with her two kids, Danny (Peter DaCunha) and Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). Sitting next to the family, there’s an unusual looking man (Michael Dyson) with a red gift-wrapped box on his lap. Danny asks the man what is in the box, and when the man opens it for his eyes only, the boy’s expression deadens. When it comes time to eat dinner at home with their father, Robert (Jonathan Watton), Danny isn’t hungry and he just stops eating. When this behavior has gone on long enough—out of concern by Robert more than Susan—his parents take him to get checked out. The doctor tells the boy that he could die if he stops eating, which Danny responds with, “So?” With the contents of the box shrewdly kept a mystery to the viewer (Danny only tells his sister and father in a whisper), “The Box” presents a wickedly provocative idea with sinister insinuations. Vucokis spins Ketchum’s yarn on an uphill climb of unease and ambiguity with chilling control and then delivers a hopelessly bleak final punch.

Next up is a tonally different beast with “The Birthday Party,” the auspicious directorial debut of Annie Clark, who’s better known as musician St. Vincent. Scrambling around finishing up preparations for her daughter’s 7th birthday party, Mary (Melanie Lynskey) remains in her robe. She’s startled by dressed-all-in-black nanny Carla (Sheila Vand of 2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), who insists Mary’s husband David (Seth Duhame) is back home early from his work trip. When Mary is shocked to find David slumped in his office chair, she has to act quickly, finding the proper place for the stiff body before the party starts. Playing more as a burnt-black-as-coffee farce than straight-up horror, the segment plays like a wonkier “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a surreal, off-center style and close-call tension. As a housewife keeping up appearances and then dealing with her emotions later, Melanie Lynskey holds it all together in an amusingly idiosyncratic turn. The situation is absurd and blackly comic at the same time—and indie auteur John Swanberg has a funny cameo as a rapping panda with a terrible haircut—before Clark caps it off with an indelible punchline. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

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