Sundance Review: XX

Four scary stories to watch in the dark.

In the making of horror anthology XX, producer Todd Brown told us during the film’s Q&A, there were only two rules: each segment had to be written and directed by women, and the lead character had to be a woman. Anything else goes.

We can see this freedom working behind XX, as each filmmaker – Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark and Jovanka Vuckovic – brings her own unique sensibilities to the table. The film makes a cohesive whole thanks to Sofia Carrillo’s wonderful interstitial animation, a precious, creepy sort of broken down dollhouse stop motion that frames each chapter of XX against one another. Otherwise, these are four distinct films with little in common other than the too-rare detail that they are stories told by conspicuously female voices.

“The Box” is directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, former Rue Morgue editor and the filmmaker behind shorts The Captured Bird, Self Portrait and The Guest. In it, Natalie Brown plays a woman whose son won’t eat. Parents are likely to recognize the horror inherent in that simple concept – the stress and bargaining and even rage that can go into the modest act of convincing your offspring to accept the nourishment you provide for them. “The Box” has a strong visual style and a fundamental air of suspense, and Brown’s terrific as a woman who refuses to let the daily dramas of her household keep her from enjoying a damn meal.

The second chapter was the directing debut of Annie Clark, best known as innovative and visually daring musician St. Vincent. “Birthday Party,” written by Benjamin, has Melanie Lynskey moving heaven and earth to pull off her daughter’s birthday party without a hitch. Unfortunately, her always-absent husband shuffles off this mortal coil the night before the party, and Mary must resort to some Weekend at Bernie hijinks to survive the day. “Birthday Party” is bright and brightly colored, an energetic and darkly funny debut. It’s got a really interesting ‘70s-inspired look, and the score and sound design are both nuts. It’s a really assured debut and great short on its own.

Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound) directed the third chapter, “Don’t Fall,” starring UnReal’s Breeda Wool. It’s the most overtly horrific short of the four, in which a camping trip among friends turns monstrous. Benjamin uses extremely cool practical effects and a deft hand at manipulating atmosphere in order to, frankly, scare the crap out of our audience. The fright escalates at exactly the right pace, giving us just enough time to like these characters before terrible things start happening to them. “Don’t Fall” is gleefully gross and legitimately terrifying, and it gives XX a little needed muscle.

And the final chapter was directed by The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body’s Karyn Kusama. “Her Only Living Son” is a quiet, festering thriller that builds to real horror in its final minutes. Christina Kirk is Cora, a single mother whose only son is turning eighteen. Cora’s clutching to her waning days as the mother of a minor who still needs her, while Andy (Kyle Allen) is taking advantage of his new liberty in troubling ways. The story starts small but builds to something elemental, and it’s told with Kusama’s impeccable control.

Together, these five women have made that rare anthology film that doesn’t have a weak link. XX flies by, feels much shorter than its already short running time, because every moment is earned and interesting. There’s no lag here, no fat. It’s a great time at the movies, and a reminder that many of the most inventive and influential voices in horror are women.