Horror anthologies (especially the notorious ones) are something of a great delectation for me, packaged like the horror film equivalent of a pack of trading cards curated by some of the genre's best - and sickest - minds. As a super-value variety of scares, it's very rarely the case I'm left feeling disappointed, and even at their worst, there's almost always a story that resonates enough with me to make the entire viewing experience worth my time. Of course, the ideal situation is a collection that knocks it out of the park with each segment, but those are few and far between; Creepshow (1984) and Three Extremes (2004) being two examples of this. Fast forward to 2017, middle of February, and right in the thick of yet another awesome "Women in Horror" celebration we have the female driven collaborative 'XX' getting set for a theatrical release, a horror anthology that at the very least, fits the occasion. Question is, does it also have the substance to place itself in that exclusive club held by the aforementioned critically acclaimed forerunners. Let's take a look, story-by-story, at how 'XX' measures up.
This segment wastes no time in introducing us to the mysterious six-sided catalyst (and its peculiar owner) when a ride through the subway sets things in motion for what turns out to be a maddening, and ultimately disturbing spiral towards a jaw-dropping conclusion. And although this entry is based on Jack Ketchum's original short story by the same name, I'm actually reminded quite a bit of Shel Silverstein's profoundly emotional work, "The Giving Tree". In particular, the film's demonstration of a mother's ability to give everything of herself, to an almost disturbing degree, all for the well being of her family. Consequently, it's in Jovanka Vuckovic's delivery of such a message, filtered through the gaze of horror, that gives 'XX' the powerfully captivating start it has; and if there was a potential "negative" to be found anywhere, its simply that "The Box" sets the bar pretty damn high.
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Moving on to the second film, we find that things take a turn for the comedic. Delivering an effective one-two punch, Roxanne Benjamin & Annie Clark bring us a tale that's not only pretty funny, but actually rife with tension. Riding on the back of a morbid discovery, Mary - played by the charming Melanie Lynskey - does everything in her power to make damn sure that her daughter will have the birthday party she deserves. And what's the morbid discovery you ask? Well, it turns out that on the morning of, Mary finds her husband lacking quite a bit in the spirit of festivity, or to put it another way, he's dead. Hilarity ensues as friends of the family begin to show up, and we're introduced to shenanigans very reminiscent of Weekend at Bernie's, with each subsequent challenge forcing the distressed mother to get even more creative in what become increasingly nail-biting scenarios; all to ensure that the show will go on (PHEW). And although it is funny, there's a darkly disturbing air to the entire ordeal as there should be; it's a darkly disturbing situation to be in. But even with the stench of death filling the air, ultimately The Birthday Party finds itself to be a thoroughly charming endeavor, showing the lengths a mother will go just to put a smile on their child's face.
I absolutely LOVE this story, and unlike the previous two, Roxanne Benjamin writes and directs this entry in such a way that it comes across as a straight-laced horror yarn; but don't let that fool you. There's also a subversive feminist subtext, one that's delivered in the form of a cut throat uninhibited beastly super-woman! Yes! While I'm sure there are those who see this as simply a possession monster story - which on the surface it totally is - I personally took the "demon" to represent the spirit of liberation and rebellion. Think about it. It's not until Breeda Wool's character "Gretchen" heads to that forbidden spot on the off-limits trail that the transformation occurs, and the playfully timid red-head becomes a physical manifestation of the fiery inner-power that is woman unleashed; a fiery fierceness that will not be impeded in its goal to get what it wants, bloody claws and fangs bared!
Of course, there's always the possibility that I'm way off base here, and this female driven gore-fest is simply just that. A fun, well-acted, violently provocative monster romp that calls back to something much more traditional (think Creepshow's fourth story, "The Crate"). Regardless, at the very least its clear that no matter which angle you come at it from, "Don't Fall" definitely has plenty to give in order to satisfy even the most jaded of horror fans. To reiterate, Its fun, explosive, scary, and by my observation, has something cool to say, and by that measure becomes my favorite story in the 'XX' anthology.
HER ONLY LIVING SON
Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Girl Fight) brings a terrifying story to the table. One about a mother caught between her obligations to a domineering husband and her vows to protect her son, who in his late teenage years is experiencing monstrous changes of a demonic nature. Of all the stories present in this anthology, this one absolutely begs to stretch its legs into a feature film. As it stands however, "Her Only Living Son" works as an inspirational short that at its core, deals with the struggles found in that volatile relationship between a parent and teenager on the cusp of total independence. The fear rests not in the overtly demonic change, but in the uncertainty of their preparedness for adulthood, a fear that the darkest parts of the world would not only beckon to your child, but pull them in as well, leaving them broken and defenseless. Certainly its something my wife and I can relate to. We do our absolute best to instill good values, build common sense, and hope that when they're eventually sent out on their own, they'll not only survive, but thrive as well. Sometimes however, sometimes the inner-strength to withstand nature's darkest forces isn't enough, and its at these crucial moments when your child is lost and confused, defeated, that you lend your strength to help them through, no matter the toll.
Sometimes, all we can do, is be there and love them. This, no better demonstrated, than in Kusama's heart-breaking tale.
With the exception of "The Fall", a prevalent theme (though definitely not the only one) in XX is motherhood, and the various relationships that come as a result of it. Now, while a single theme could easily push the film to fall into a territory of monotony, that fear would only fall upon you if you weren't aware of just how complex this particular one is. As for myself, as a son and husband both, I'd like to think that I have an inkling of those entailing complexities. Four stories doesn't even begin to scratch the surface, let alone three, but facets of motherhood are enough to build some compelling stories as you've probably figured out, and each will speak to different viewers in different ways assuredly.
So while not every segment resonated with me as deeply as "The Box" and "Don't Fall", all of them brought something powerfully unique to the table, and all of them powerfully united by threads of feminism to some degree. Whether that be in the form of motherhood (sacrifice, perseverence and strength) or independence (female empowerment), there's no denying the overarching strength found in the examples at hand, and the very special kind of anthology we have in 'XX' as a result.