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Horror Anthology XX is a Bloody Mixed Bag of Broken Bones (Sundance Review)

A child who refuses to eat, a dead body at a birthday party, a hiking trip awakening something hateful, and a dangerous boy on the cusp of becoming a wicked man. These are the dark worlds the horror anthology XX invites you to visit.

The main thing to be said about the project–which features films from Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), and Jovanka Vuckovic–is that it’s a lot like most other horror anthologies out there in terms of quality control. Some stuff is great, some is just fine, some of it needs serious work.

The easiest way to say which is which is to go through each short on its own, but it’s also important to note that the whole affair is bookended and tied together in a creepy bow by Sofia Carrillo‘s dead doll stop-motion animations, which feature a dirty gang of misfit toys, bugs and tiny slamming doors. They’re wonderful, and Trent Reznor is probably already trying to secure Carrillo for his next music video.

As for the shorts of XX, the quality gets better as the collection goes along.

xx The Box

First, there’s The Box, adapted and directed by Vuckovic, based on the story by Jack Ketchum. It’s the story of a harried mother (Natalie Brown) and father (Jonathan Watton) whose son (Peter Decunha) stops eating after peering into a stranger’s Christmas present box on the subway. It drives a wedge between his parents, and things get worse when his sister (Peyton Kennedy) wants to know was in the box.

There are some interesting ideas here, and a stellar bit of body make-up that may put you off your liver and onions, but none of it congeals. Worse than that, it leads to a deeply unsatisfying ending that’s both the fault of Ketchum’s lazy MacGuffin airiness and Vuckovic for not altering the tale to give it some real weight. There’s also no real momentum, which is strange considering how bizarre the little boy’s ailment is.

On the plus side, its shot of pristine family dinners and its overall structure makes you hungry when you’re sick to your stomach. The story is just undercooked.

xx the birthday party

Next up is The Birthday Party, co-written by Benjamin and co-written/directed by Clark, which answers the annual question of what to do with your husband’s dead body when party guests are on their way over. Mary (Melanie Lynskey) drags the deceased, hides from her nanny (Sheila Vand), and puts out social fires with the kind of frantic diligence that deserves a shot of whiskey in her afternoon tea. The lengths she goes to are admirable (and include a cameo that should please horror fans), but there’s a stifling repetition that isn’t camouflaged the main character is one-note. Lynskey does what she can, but Mary’s motivation to not, you know, immediately call the cops, isn’t clear, which makes a silly outing more frustrating than it needs to be. Her character might as well have been called Nervous Mother.

It’s also about as much horror as Weekend at Bernie’s is, although its punchline is a sardonic bit of hilarious, dark comic cruelty. Where The Box disappoints in its ending, The Birthday Party only finally succeeds with its last laugh.

Angela Trimbur, Breeda Wool, Morgan Krantz and Casey Adams appear in XX by Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin and Jovanka Vuckovic, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. © 2016 Sundance Institute.

The clearest understanding of horror form and function comes from Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, which sends four friends–Jess (Angela Trimbur), Gretchen (Breeda Wool), Jay (Morgan Krantz), and Paul (Casey Adams)–to a remote expanse of land to hike, camp, and meet the wildlife. Instead of re-inventing the wheel (or any part of the vehicle), Benjamin simply displays a top-notch example of the most common horror trope.

In a sense, it acts as a demo reel to prove that she could do great work if the right feature script were in her hands. The creature work is mangy and scary as hell, and the young horror stereotypes have a great, realistic rapport. The one thing holding it back is that it doesn’t try anything new. Still, there’s a lot to be said for doing something familiar right.

xx her only living son

Closing out the proceedings is writer/director Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, the most fully realized project in the mix. Cora (Christina Kirk) is worried that her son Andy (Kyle Allen) has recently become violent and domineering, but her biggest concern isn’t that she’s been called into his principal’s (Brenda (Wehle) office to discuss his removing another classmate’s fingernails, it’s that the principal doesn’t plan on punishing him. He’s a special, special boy.

What transpires is another favorite horror trope (it ain’t hard to guess), but it’s subverted slightly by giving Cora a great sense of agency and emotional wherewithal. It’s acted with a dash of too-happy suburban glee while Kirk remains distressed for nearly the entire runtime.

It’s a solid note to end on from the collection’s most veteran filmmaker.

It’s also the third (out of four) shorts to speak to some facet of motherhood. The Box covers the draining aspect of children, The Birthday Party gives us a window into a specific childhood trauma, and Her Only Living Son offers a disturbing, then ameliorating, view on maternal sacrifice. There are little touches of themes that could potentially tie all four shorts together if you’re looking for them, and while the overall quality of the entries isn’t pumping on all cylinders, it succeeds and fails at the standard horror anthology rate. Even so, it’s nice to see this kind of variation–unsettling, goofy, aggressive, redemptive–present inside a single collection.

2.5 out of 5 burritos that one kid won’t eat

2.5 burritos

Images: XYZ Films

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