On DVD from 8th May 2017
A little boy loses his appetite after peering into a gift-wrapped box carried by a passenger on the train home; a mother panics after discovering her husband has died on the day of their daughter’s birthday party; four friends camp at an historical site in the desert and awake an evil; a mother fears for her disturbed son as he reaches his 18th birthday.
XX is one of the latest anthology films to hit the horror scene however this one sets itself apart by containing segments directed solely by female filmmakers.
Four short stories are tied together by a wonderfully surreal stop-motion animation sequence from Sofia Carrillo that involves a doll’s house which eerily features a doll’s face. Between each of the short films, we see the doll’s house move around the property it resides in as objects are placed behind doors and other such contained spaces.
The first short film is entitled The Box. Based on a short story by Jack Ketchum, The Box is directed by Canadian filmmaker and former Rue Morgue editor, Jovanka Vuckovic. The opening of The Box sees a mother and her two kids on their way home on the train. Her youngest, Danny (Peter DaChunha), being nosy as children often can be, asks a passenger on the train sitting next to them what he has inside the gift-wrapped box he’s holding. Not content with the answer of ‘a present’, with it being near Christmas time, Danny actually wants to see what’s inside. The man happily obliges and allows Danny to peer in. However, judging from the expression on his face, Danny wishes he hadn’t been so cheeky to have asked. That night, as the family sit together at the table for dinner, Danny proclaims he’s not hungry despite usually having an appetite of a bottomless pit. His loss of appetite soon becomes a running theme as for the following days, Danny refuses breakfast and dinner and even skips his packed lunch made for him for school. His concerned father takes him to the hospital but other than Danny willingly starving himself, there’s nothing physically wrong with him which forces the doctor to believe something mentally might the afflicting the youngster. Danny’s starvation quest continues but to the horror of his parents, it spreads to their daughter too after it appears she finally gets the answer out of her younger brother about what was inside the passenger’s box.
The Box is a chilling piece of cinema and this anthology’s main highlight due to the fact we never truly understand or discover what’s inside the box that drives the poor boy to starvation. The fact that its contents can even do this in the first place is disturbing enough but to understand that even a mere mention of the contents provides a contagious reaction simply puts the chills up the viewer. It’s not all unpleasant though as we see the family grow closer together despite a lack of nutrition but it seems whatever the cause of this starvation will forever be a mystery and apparently the same applies to the original story by Jack Ketchum. I personally have no idea what could have been in the box and I’m sure horror fans like yourselves reading this might have your theories which I’m more than happy to discuss. So although not entirely “horror” as you’d generally expect, The Box is by far the creepiest short film of this anthology.
Directed by artist St. Vincent, the second short film THE BIRTHDAY CAKE is more of the horror comedy variety as we see a sixties-style suburbian family about to celebrate their daughter’s birthday. However, when the mother finds her husband dead in his study, she does everything she can to hide his corpse so as to not ruin the little girl’s day. Cue many interruptions from nosey, rich neighbours dropping by looking for an invite to the ‘most-talked about’ party of the year to her daughter and the nanny suddenly appearing in the room she’s in. You can’t help but laugh as the mother attempts several times to conceal her husband but ends up being disturbed and you just know that sooner or later her husband’s death will come to light. A bit of fun and totally not what I was expecting from this anthology, THE BIRTHDAY CAKE manages to raise a couple of laughs but does feel as though it doesn’t fit in with the other movies.
Taking the anthology back to more traditional horror roots is the third film DON’T FALL, directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound). Two guys and girls of the hippy variety camp in the desert where they come across strange, seemingly-ancient markings on a rock. As night falls, one of them falls prey to an evil depicted in the drawings and the rest of the group must fight for their lives.
DON’T FALL is more of a straight-forward, monster-themed cat-and-mouse chase that may be of no real threat to horror fans however the make-up effects and intensity of the action will more than keep you on the edge of your seat as each of the three remaining individuals suddenly come face to face with real horror. It’s snappy, effective and works although there’s no real reason as to why the evil is there in the first place making it little more than an ancient-fuelled monster slasher short.
Finally, we get a Rosemary’s Baby style short in the form of HER ONLY LIVING SON from director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux). Single mum Cora fears for her son Andy as he reaches his 18th birthday and for good reason. After finding an animal grotesquely pinned up on her tree, she discovers her son has pulled the fingernails off a fellow pupil at school but it seems that the principal has no interest in disciplining or suspending him. Instead, the principal proclaims how Andy is special and that he’s one of a kind, someone who will change the world. It seems like his teachers aren’t the only ones in awe of her son as other residents of the town make their feelings known. In an attempt to save her son, Cora must come to terms with her buried secret as Andy demands to know who his real father is.
HER ONLY LIVING SON doesn’t try to hide its true intentions as it becomes painfully obvious what’s happening to Andy and who his father is. However, it’s how Cora deals with the siutation that drives the true suspense. The line blurs between how a child may feel torn, upset and bitter over split parents and that of its demonic intentions and results in an emotionally charged, shocking conclusion. In a way, I can imagine the short playing out very much like how Rosemary would have dealt with her situation if we’d have seen her child come of age in Polanski’s chilling classic and so, in a way, it has a lot of nostalgic charm to it.
Overall, XX is a pretty decent anthology movie showcasing the talents of the female filmmakers out there. Whilst THE BOX and HER ONLY LIVING SON are the stronger of the four titles, all do well to execute their story in a manner that entertains without overstaying their welcome. However, the stories don’t pack as much of a punch as one would like so although they’re pretty enjoyable to sit through, they’re not jaw-droppingly amazing. In some cases, extended running time and backstory might have benefitted the films but as they’re time-constrained to fit into an anthology movie like this, they flow reasonably well to suffice.
A definite step-up from V/H/S whilst not quite reaching the heights of Southbound, XX is still well worth checking out for fans of the anthology genre offering plenty of moments of unsettling horror.