Annie Clark and Co. deliver an innovative horror quartet confronting themes of motherhood and death
The new horror anthology film from the wayward XYZ Films, “XX,” is important. Under the direction of four rising female filmmakers—Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama, and Annie Clark of St. Vincent—the collection of short films has arrived as an offbeat diversion from this year’s largely standard Hollywood landscape. “XX” is composed of four equally disturbing and thematically alike shorts. Their conceptual connection is interesting, particularly when considering that each director was given absolute creative freedom in producing her short. But they differ, too, as each of the quartet presents a unique exploration of death, and all but one of them explore the struggles of motherhood, divulging the difficulties of raising children and losing a spouse. Of all the movies I have seen, only “The Babadook”–a 2014 psychological horror film also directed by a woman (Jennifer Kent)–has so vividly and disturbingly captured the struggles of being a mother as the films featured in this anthology.
Last week, I checked out the four shorts of “XX” at St. Anthony Main, where the Film Society was playing the anthology’s small release. Here are my thoughts on each.
Jovanka Vuckovic’s entry begins with a simple frame: a subway window and a woman’s tired face. Nothing is said, but it is obvious that she is deeply alone. The camera cuts to a full shot of the subway, and we learn that, in fact, she is not alone. The car is teeming with brilliant life. “What’s in the box?” her son asks a man sitting next to them. “No, it’s okay,” the man tells her, and her son peeks inside. So begins “The Box,” which follows the story of a mother becoming increasingly isolated by her husband and two children, who successively learn the contents of the mysterious box. Ultimately, this knowledge coerces each of the three to commit suicide, leaving the mother completely alone and desperate to understand their motivations and the revelations hidden in the box. But she never understands, that inevitability being the crux of the film’s message: death is unexpected, and the reason for its happening is incomprehensible.
“The Birthday Party”
Annie Clark’s short investigates motherhood as well, but beneath a decidedly different aesthetic. “The Birthday Party” is supremely surreal, employing an absurd and irreverent plot to explore such substantial and poignant themes as coming-of-age and suicide. The film takes place on the day of a young girl’s birthday party. Her mother, a wealthy housewife, discovers her husband dead at his desk. Thus, she spends the movie’s remainder attempting to hide the body from the children and parents who begin to stream into her home for the party. Ultimately, “The Birthday Party” functions as an impressive and tragic commentary on the difficulty of teaching one’s children the concept of death, and the impossibility of removing the memories of the departed from everyday life.
Ultimately, “The Birthday Party” functions as an impressive and tragic commentary on the difficulty of teaching one’s children the concept of death, and the impossibility of removing the memories of the departed from everyday life.
“Don’t Fall,” Roxanne Benjamin’s contribution to the anthology, departs markedly from the overarching investigation of motherhood that characterizes the other shorts, offering a gory detour and a unique vision of the traditional slasher flick. “Don’t Fall” follows four friends into a generic, untouched, and isolated region of the American Southwest. There, the group is terrorized by a prehistoric amphibian monster, which gradually turns three of them into monsters of their own. The fourth friend is finally chased off a ledge, breaking her arm and waiting for the creature’s inescapable pursuit. “Don’t Fall” was genuinely terrifying, making use of jump-scares that felt authentic and an overall production that was fast-paced and fluid.
“Her Only Living Son”
The final short in the ensemble was from Karyn Kusama, the most prolific of the participating filmmakers as a previous director of such features as “Jennifer’s Body” and “Girlfight.” It was also my favorite of the four, alluding to horror classics such as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen,” while forming a largely original and intriguing narrative of a mother’s struggles with her troubled son and his absent father. Throughout the course of the piece, the son becomes the devil, yet his mother refuses to surrender him to his father. Through this, Kusama succeeds in presenting the absolute and often irrational love a mother feels for her child.
Each of the directors clearly exercised her immense capacity for creativity and inventiveness, lending to an anthology film that feels coherent and whole within its range of visions for the genre. In an industry so dominated by men and so routinely plagued by gender discrimination, daring and cerebral female-led productions like those presented in “XX” serve as evidence of the presence of innovative, subversive, and up-and-coming women in the film industry.