Short fiction, in any form or genre is difficult. Brevity often proves more challenging than long-form storytelling, and that difficulty goes equally for the artist and the audience. Asking audiences to commit to the often undefined parameters of a story world in short cinema means asking audiences to do some of the lifting. That extended franchises and property reboots define as much of the American landscape as currently is the case proves one thing at least: audience aren’t that interested in doing any, let alone heavy, lifting.
Such is the cinematic landscape that now receives XX, an anthology series of four short horror films, punctuated by scenes of creepy stop-motion dollhouse horror imagery from Sofia Carrillo. Each entry is directed by a different woman. The films and directors are: “The Box,” by Jovanka Vuckovic, “The Birthday Party,” by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), “Don’t Fall,” by Roxanne Benjamin, and “Her Only Living Son,” by Karyn Kusama.
As a collection, XX is hit and miss. Each film is progressively more successful, a fact that I assume is not lost on the aggregating forces behind the project. Two of these films–Benjamin and Kusama’s–are quite good. “Her Only Living Son,” essentially Rosemary’s Baby eighteen years later, has a completeness not just in story but technical and emotional execution. In “Don’t Fall,” Benjamin tells of four young hikers camping on a pre-pre-history site, when some force turns one of them from human into…something else. “Don’t Fall” has the only real quality scares in XX.
The other films give too little to make much impact, this is not to say that they fail. Twenty minutes is not much to work with.
In Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party,” a woman finds her husband dead an hour before her daughter’s birthday party. Clark attempts dreadful imagery mixed with humor and strikingly mismatched music, and while the effects are not successful, they are memorable. In “The Box,” Vuckovic haunts rather than scares. “The Box” focuses on a family after their son looks inside a mysterious box and thereafter stops eating. It gets bad for everyone. Vuckovic’s efforts are fine, if insufficient to carry the broader weight of what’s to come in XX. She, too, finds a single image–the most wrenching in XX–that makes her story well worth the watch.
More intriguing than weighing the individual parts of XX though is considering the project as a whole. Yes, these stories seem mismatched and unequal. There is not enough clarity in the project, too little purpose behind the package. But even so, XX is welcome change from the unoriginal fodder being so casually dealt to audiences, made by men who are interested in breaking little new ground. Each of these stories makes some contribution if only in their unusual content and execution. Not everyone is as adept at horror as Kusama, but big deal, really. XX is a delight, and will leave horror fans satisfied, surely.
XX opens today at St. Anthony Main with the Minneapolis Film Society. It runs until March 2.