"Four Deadly Tales by Four Killer Women" is a great tagline. It harks back to the exploitation roots, and the frequently current status, of the horror genre. "Four Deadly Tales from Four Female Filmmakers" works as well but it is a shame that in 2017 politics still need to be foregrounded. It can't be argued that women are under-represented in the film industry, as artists in any form, but does XX stand on its own as a horror anthology?
Fortunately the first tagline is more accurate, though it should read "Deadly Tales by Five Killer Women." The short films are linked by animation created by Sofia Carrillo that manages to be unsettling and beautiful at the same time. Dolls, a horror trope, interact with insects, fabric and mechanical creatures, blinking their unseeing but staring glass eyes towards the viewer as well as the decay around them. An unholy and totally captivating mash-up of Antonella Sigismondi, Dare Wright and Terry Gilliam. These minutes alone make XX a disturbing and worthwhile experience.
The great joy of a collection of horror shorts is how they play with the genre, how the theme is toyed with, how the scares play out as expected or, even better, as unexpected. The first segment, Jovanka Vuckovic's The Box, is based on a story by Jack Ketchum and it is just as disturbing and haunting as his work. Christmas, food porn and the iconic Night of the Living Dead, weave thematically through a brutally nihilistic storyline filled with creeping dread.
At the time of viewing, I was still framing my reactions, thanks to the second tagline, through a feminist perspective which is amply rewarded by The Box. XX was partially created to express a female perspective and The Box, on the surface, has a lot to say about motherhood, responsibility, body image and the cruelty of children. The son has a line, and a visual, that is still echoing unwelcome in my brain. And then it is upended and snapped into a new focus by the final line in fading voiceover to quite horrific effect.
After more of Carrillo's eerie dolls and bugs, Annie Clark (better known as pop star St Vincent) splashes the screen with colour and deadpan humour. Her own presence - amidst a ghost, a harried housewife and a giant panda - as a kindly malevolent character is a bonus. Part satire, part farce and most definitely unnerving, The Birthday Party keeps everything off balance, like eye candy that one knows is poisoned but can't resist savouring. The final twist is so hilarious and so devastating, that it made me want to watch again immediately to find out how I had got to that state.
Roxanne Benjamin's Don't Fall is the most conventional of the five, playing out a cliché plot with a bit of self-conscious mockery overlaid. That said, the jump scares work, the special effects are well-done and the gory revenge of the downtrodden upon a group of hipsters is always very satisfying. This is also probably the place to mention that all of the segments are sumptuously shot and art directed with a subtlety that falls just short of calling attention to itself. Benjamin's use of fog, shadows and the night is a fun element of deconstruction amidst the gleeful carnage.
Karyn Kusama's Her Only Living Son is a riff on Rosemary's Baby, The Omen and every fear of puberty horror/comedy ever made. It is slow-paced and deliberate with a few shocks - the squirrel! the toenails! - tossed in. While it never finds the balance between satire and ever-mounting dread, and lacks an effective ending, it does crawl under one's skin and asks questions that we really would prefer not to contemplate.
Taken as a complete entity, XX is an enjoyable addition to the horror anthology genre. Less campy and gore-soaked than most, the films work a more hypnotic psychological horror that sinks its teeth and claws in for the duration. And beyond. As a chromosomal manifesto, it is perhaps a touch too careful and artistic. All of the participants are beyond qualified as filmmakers, and make the female perspective universal through horror and identification. Let's hope this calling card earns them the chance, now that they've proved their point, to cut loose and be killers in whatever format their artistic impulses desire.
XX begins a theatrical run on Fri, Feb 17 with an iTunes and On Demand release on Fri, March 3.