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1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic

Cast: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Peyton Kennedy, Ron Lea, Michael Dyson, Melanie Lynskey, Seth Duhame, Sanai Victoria, Sheila Vand, Lindsay Burdge, Casey Adams, Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Christina Kirk, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle, Brenda Wehle, Morgan Peter Brown, Lisa Renee Pitts

MPAA Rating: R (for horror violence, language and brief drug use)

Running Time: 1:20

Release Date: 2/17/17 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | February 16, 2017

The concept behind XX is admirable: an anthology of four short horror movies (five, if we count the stop-motion one that plays as interludes between the other segments) that are directed by women, star women, and feature, in some way, the concerns of women. That's about where the overt commendation ends. The end result is an unfortunate misfire, and since it's an anthology, it's a misfire multiple times over.

There is one major sticking point, and it's the third segment. As a short unto itself, it's pretty underwhelming. As a piece of the whole movie's goal as a unified entity, it doesn't fit, except that it was written and directed by a woman. The cast is two women and two men, and they are all, essentially, interchangeable, which means that the fact that half of the cast is made up of women doesn't mean anything. Unlike the other three main parts of the anthology, it has nothing to do with women's experiences in any way, save that woman in a horror movie is as prone to being attacked by a weird, horror-movie monster as her male counterparts.

This segment is quite revealing, though. It suggests that there was likely no genuine attempt at creating a cohesive whole here. There's at least one thematic connection that can be made between a couple of these shorts, although the term "couple" should be taken literally in this case—meaning, of course, that only two of them seem to share that idea.

One of those two is not the first one, entitled "The Box." It's adapted from a short story (written by Jack Ketchum) by writer/director Jovanka Vuckovic. The gist of it is thus: Susan (Natalie Brown) takes her two children on a trip to the city. On the train ride home, her son Danny (Peter DaCunha) notices a man (Michael Dyson) with a gift-wrapped box. After seeing the box's contents, the boy stops eating. Susan's husband Robert (Jonathan Watton) is worried, but Susan thinks it isn't a big deal.

What's fascinating or curious here is Brown's performance, which either intentionally or accidentally comes across as cold and unfeeling toward her family's plight. It's never clear whether that's Vuckovic's intention or simply an issue of the performer. If it's the former, the movie sacrifices any sort of enlightenment we might obtain about why Susan reacts for a continuous air of mystery.

The second segment, co-written and directed by Annie Clark, is an outlier from the rest, both in terms of tone and effectiveness. It's a strange comedy called "The Birthday Party," in which a woman named Mary (Melanie Lynskey) tries to throw the perfect birthday party for her daughter (Sanai Victoria). The kink in her plan is the sudden, unexpected appearance of her husband (Seth Duhame), whom she finds in his home office—slumped-over dead. She spends the rest of the piece trying to hide the body from her daughter amidst constant interruptions.

It's an absurd premise that's carried (pun partially intended) by Lynskey's frazzled, desperate performance. Dressed in a nightgown and a robe, she has to drag around the dead weight of her husband, while fearing that she'll be blamed if anything goes wrong with the party. As comedy, it's a little too outlandish for the fairly everyday tone that Clark establishes, but as a metaphor, it's potent (The short's alternate subtitle, which goes on for multiple title cards, is a good punch line, too). Considering that it's also about the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child, it couples well with the fourth segment.

"Don't Fall," the third segment, has been discussed broadly, but in terms of specifics, it's about a quartet who go on a camping trip in a remote part of the desert. It's a monster story, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (who co-wrote the previous short), that's absent of scares, purpose, and relevance to the rest of the movie.

The fourth is the most ambitious of the bunch. It's something of an unofficial sequel to another famous horror film. In "Her Only Living Son," Cora (Christina Kirk), a single mother, is preparing for her son Andy's (Kyle Allen) 18th birthday. The teenager has some, well, emotional issues and acts them out in, well, horrifying ways. Nobody in town seems to mind too much. In fact, they all worship the young man.

This one, written and directed by Karyn Kusama, is a fitting way for XX to end. It's a solid idea, featuring a few spots of inspiration, but ultimately, it feels like a concept in search of something that's genuinely worthwhile.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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