I sometimes start to think horror films are becoming a parody of themselves. Crowd-pleasing horrors are starting to become too cliched and dull, and distance themselves from their predecessors. Of course this is not true for all horror films, because very often something comes along that is unique and brilliant, in either its story, execution or way it was presented. 2017 has already gotten off to a brilliant start with XX, one of the most wonderfully terrifying and utterly perfect horror films.
Something that has somehow gotten lost in the horror genre is the concept of the anthology. There were so many great horror anthologies, mostly from Italy (which I crudely call “Italianthology films”), and while there have, on occasion, been an attempt to enter into the realm of anthology horror films again, it becomes increasingly difficult to find one of great quality, or one that is original. It isn’t a format that is completely dead, but with the rise in modern horror films that tell a singular story, to find a film that condenses the terror into a series of shorter, usually unrelated (but thematically similar) films, and manages to do it well, is rare. Sometimes, there just needs to be something else there that makes one take notice of the film – and XX has one hell of a concept that drew me to it.
Last year, I wrote a piece called Queens of the Scream: The Most Iconic Women of Horror Cinema, where I discussed how women are vital parts of horror films, but they strangely go unrecognized a lot of the time. As someone who constantly fights for a variety of issues in the film industry, particularly around representation, I have found that women may be slowly taking a position of higher prestige in various parts of the industry, yet there is still quite a way to go.
What drew me to XX was that it seemed like the universe answering my question as to why women in horror films in particular, are not given their dues most of the time, only being seen as victims or final girls, which are cliched beyond belief. XX is a horror film composed of four short films, each one directed by a woman, and rather than being films about women’s issues, they are simply just brilliant horror stories that prove the people behind the camera are just as brilliant in making terrifying cinema as anyone else. I will be going through each of the short films one by one, treating them somewhat individually, because together they make a great film, but individually they are utterly genius.
The first story is called The Box, and it is based on a story by Jack Ketchum. Directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (who has previously worked in short horror filmmaking), and is about a mother (Natalie Brown) who takes her children (Peter DaCunha and Peyton Kennedy) into the city for a day out, but when her son’s curiosity causes him to look into the gift box a mysterious stranger on the train is holding, he learns something that passes through the family, forcing each member of the family (except for the mother) to stop eating for some reason, and take an incredibly dark turn.
The thing about XX is that none of these stories are completely original, and rather they pay homage to different sub-genres of horror. The Box is a homage to the more mysterious and vague horror films that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. Starting off the film with The Box was a very wise choice, as it may not be the strongest of the four segments, but it certainly sets the tone of terror and mystery, that continues throughout the film. Natalie Brown is so wonderful as Susan, who just wants answers, and as the only person who doesn’t understand the reason for the events, she is the audience surrogate. As a whole, The Box is a wonderfully complex opening to a film that only gets better as it goes on.
Paying homage to psychologically frantic horror films, The Birthday Party sees a mother (Melanie Lynskey) preparing for her daughter’s birthday party. However, when she finds her husband overdosed on drugs, she has to hide the body – and avoids her daughter, her psychotic nanny and her materialistic neighbor. Nothing goes right, as she discovers that hiding an entire human body can be incredibly difficult, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
This segment was why I watched XX, as it was directed by Annie Clarke, who is better known as St. Vincent, one of the most innovative and extraordinary musicians of the modern era. Trying her hand at filmmaking, The Birthday Party is my personal favourite of all the segments, because it is offbeat and quirky, but still psychologically terrifying. As the only segment that doesn’t feature some element of the supernatural, Clarke still brings out the terror in this story. The segment ends in what seems to be a music video for St. Vincent, which could be tacky if you look at it one way, or utterly brilliant if you look at it another way – I personally lean towards the latter. Not to mention Melanie Lynskey is incredible in this segment.
In Don’t Fall, Four young adults decide to go on a camping trip and find themselves in a desolate but beautiful part of the world, which is implied to be a sacred native heritage site. For most of them, they see it as a fun little trip. But for Gretchen (Breeda Wool), it is trespassing, not only on prohibited territory, but on a sacred location that should not be tampered with. Gretchen falls into the spell of the native spirits that haunt the location and go after her camping mates, bring revenge to them after they disrespected history by being present where they should not have been.
The most straight-forwardly terrifying segment, it is as dark and bleak as one would expect, and while it may be the shortest of the segments, and perhaps not the strongest, it is still beautifully shot and wonderfully acted. Wool is wonderful as Gretchen, both before and after her transformation into a demonic force. It is a complex character in a very compact and strange segment, and paying tribute to traditional slasher horror films in a way, it manages to be as scary as one would hope. I did have a problem with the ending of this segment, as I feel it could’ve explored its themes a lot better, and when the three other segments are so well-paced and interesting, this one just feels rushed.
In Her Only Living Son, Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mother living in the middle of nowhere with her son, Andy (Kyle Allen). Andy has started to act more and more strangely, and become far too violent for it to be normal. Several violent outbursts later, Cora has come to the conclusion that her son is quite literally the spawn of Satan, and that she was impregnated by the demon as a sacrifice to allow her now ex-husband to succeed as an actor in Hollywood. Using the starting point of Rosemary’s Baby (and other films about Satan existing in the mortal world), Her Only Living Son is just beyond terrifying.
Clearly saving the best for last, Karyn Kusama (who is a legend in her own right, making Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation), goes all out in one of the most utterly terrifying horror films I have ever seen. Kirk and Allen are so incredible in the leading roles, and the pervasive terror throughout this segment is so palpable and beautifully constructed. It ends the film on such a terrifying note, and I am still reeling in shock after this segment, because it touched on some truly deep themes that will stay on my mind for quite a while.
There are two amazing things going for XX. First of all, it is a film that gives female filmmakers the chance to have their voices heard, in a genre dominated by men, and the four filmmakers – amateur and professional alike – do brilliantly with the material and create pieces of horror filmmaking that will doubtlessly stand amongst the very best of the genre in years to come.
However, most importantly, XX is a brilliant horror film – tense, terrifying and beautifully constructed, it scared me beyond belief and made me believe that horror films can sometimes really surprise you. I don’t expect XX to become a huge hit, but I think it is certainly worth seeking out, both for its unique approach to anthology horror, but also because films like this carry a very important social meaning, and having them seen will allow more voices to be heard, and a more diverse and exciting cinema industry will start to emerge. Please watch XX, it is very much worth your time.