It isn’t an original opinion to say that anthology films are hit or miss. The very nature of an anthology implies that some pieces are going to be better/more interesting/appeal to different kinds of viewers, but horror anthologies seem to fall prey to this cliché more often than not. Obviously there are more horror anthologies available to stream than there are in any other genre, but if you’ve ever sat in an hour and a half long short form comedy block at a film festival then you know how a disparate collection of short films can quickly begin to grate on your nerves.
Most anthologies need a gimmick. The films in The ABCs of Death all correspond to a specific letter of the alphabet, Trick ‘r Treat all takes place on the same Halloween, and VHS is all about a spooky collection of VHS tapes and their terrifying tracking. Maybe? I only watched the first movie and assume the rest of the films are about film buffs attempting to switch over their film collection form VHS to DVD and now to Blu-Ray. The glue that holds XX together is that each short is helmed by a female director, and while it’s unfortunate that this collection of shorts carries the weight of female filmmakers on its back, it doesn’t seem to have any problems shouldering the burden. The biggest issue with having four female directors make a horror anthology is that there are way too many horror bro dunces who may never give the film a chance because of their aversion to the concept. But here's the thing, even the weakest of the shorts carries a sense of dread and arresting visuals to offer, and there’s never anything like Steven Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” segment from The Twilight Zone: The Movie to bog down the collection.
If there were a portion of the film that didn’t hold up against the rest of the shorts it would be Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party,” a story about how a woman handles the death of her husband on the day of their daughter’s birthday party. The short has too many music video moments, but those often give way to surreal visuals like a rapping panda and a character who looks more like a sculpture from Beetlejuice than she does a human being. It’s an interesting move to give an artist of Annie Clark’s caliber an opportunity to make a short film. She’s obviously stretching her creative muscles and simply trying something different, but the piece never feels confident. It’s over stylized to the point where every scene screams, “LIKE ME! I SWEAR TO FUCKING GOD I’M TALENTED!” Nothing is out of place in The Birthday Party, and everything is very professional, which make you think about the insecurity running beneath every frame. Even the most chaotic moments of the short feel very controlled, nothing is wrong, there is no danger. Melanie Lynskey is, as always, a delight.
Overall the collection has a lot of cool ideas that are mostly executed really well. Even though The Birthday Party didn’t do it for me, it still has a few elements that I enjoyed. Don’t Fall (directed by horror anthology OG Roxanne Benjamin) shows the terrible things that can happen when you go camping, and as someone who never goes camping I can watch in safety with the knowledge that I’ll never face the danger that the dumb idiot campers are in from the safety of my couch. The short has a really neat sequence where an actress is being stalked by a petroglyph of a monster before she sees the actual monster. It’s really interesting scene with an interesting and original visual, but the payoff of the monster is kind of a drag - it looks like something from a Tenacious D video. Luckily the film doesn’t spend too much time on the monster and moves on to killing off the unfortunate characters. Most horror movies, especially low budget shorts are held together with duct tape so it’s a miracle that Don’t Fall even exists, let alone plays as well as it does.
The thing that appealed to me the most about XX is that everyone is game to scream, bleed, and be eaten by their family without winking at the camera or no selling the concept. If someone needs to scream at their children because they’ve stopped eating or throw their friends through an RV window they do it. If only people in real life had that kind of follow through. Her Only Son, the film’s final short, is just more proof that Karyn Kusama is one of the greatest working directors in the modern era. I don’t know why I’m always reticent to watch one of her films, it’s like I forget that she’s a directorial gem. I wish I could blame it on an ancient curse, but I’m probably just an asshole. Kusama can take a very simple concept (suicide cult, deal with the devil, etc) and make the audience patiently wait for the pay off as she slowly ratchets up the tension. Then when the climax finally happens things get bonkers. Her Only Son essentially tells the story of a woman living out an alternate Rosemary’s Baby, but instead of hiding in a fancy apartment and being doted on by a Satanic cult she’s providing for her son by working a menial job while trying to grasp the concept that her son might be a complete shithead/the antichrist. In a lesser director’s hands the short probably wouldn’t work, but in around 20 minutes she found more ways to make me scream at my laptop than any director other than David Lynch.
Overall I liked XX, although I walked away from the film worried that audiences are only going to see the four shorts directed by women as nothing more than a gimmick, the same way that Creepshow is built on the bones of EC Comics. But XX is more than it’s selling point, it’s one of the few film anthologies that actually works from beginning to end. The film’s interstitials kind of look like a Tool video, but that’s fine, if you don’t like the visuals you can at least appreciate the artistry, and even though I wasn’t crazy about The Birthday Party there’s still enough there to have a good time. In a perfect world the gimmick for XX would be “all of these shorts are good, isn’t that crazy?” Or, “Remember how bad Campfire Tales was? Well XX Isn’t like that, it’s like, the opposite of that,” instead of “isn’t it crazy that gals can make a movie?!” If we’re lucky we won’t have to wait around for a follow up to