“XX” is a horror anthology stunner in which each story is memorable. How often does that happen? Even strong anthologies like “XX” antecedents “V/H/S” and “V/H/S 2” had lesser segments.
In “XX,” however, every tale is smart, visually stunning and surprisingly moving. This is the result of bringing together five extraordinary artists, all of whom, in this case, are female.
Directors Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark (better known as the great singer-songwriter St. Vincent), Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama and Sofìa Carrillo each have varying degrees of experience, but all bring something unique to the film. It plays the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (Boulevard Mall, 880 Alberta Drive,Amherst) for one week starting Feb. 17. It’s also available on-demand, on Amazon Video and iTunes.
“XX” features four separate stories. A series of animated sequences directed by Carrillo open and close the film, and also run between each story. The animated pieces are unrelated to the four main stories, but add to the film's overall air of unease.
The first of the four is Vuckovic’s “The Box,” an extraordinarily disturbing tale that begins with a delightfully creepy event. A suburban mom and her two children ride home on a busy subway near a mysterious man in black clutching a red box. Her curious son asks if he can see what’s inside, and the man obliges.
What he sees never shared, but the result is horrifying: the boy stops eating. Soon, he shares the secret with his sister, then his father. They, too, no longer eat. Only mom (nicely played by Natalie Brown) is spared.
The conclusion takes the film from mere horror to a place that can only be described as psychologically upsetting.
Next is Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party." Her stardom as St. Vincent makes this the film’s most eagerly anticipated segment. It’s also the collection’s least memorable segment, despite a wonderful performance from Melanie Lynskey.
However, the humor of the piece, about a mother attempting to hide her husband’s corpse during preparations for their daughter’s birthday party, is quite welcome after the trauma of “The Box.” And the sense of posh doom circling every character shows that Clark the screenwriter could someday equal the success of Clark the songwriter.
Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” follows, and it’s a forgettable but sharp monster tale centered around a camping trip in the desert.
The last of four stories is from director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Aeon Flux”), a filmmaker who roared back from the failure of 2005’s “Jennifer’s Body” with last year’s cult drama “The Invitation.” (It’s streaming on Netflix, and it’s not to be missed.)
Her segment, titled “Her Only Living Son,” slowly reveals itself to be a sequel to one of the 20th century’s horror classics. The identity of that film is best kept quiet, but the basic story here involves a working mom (Christina Kirk) whose teenage son is undergoing some disturbing changes, and whose 18th birthday coincides with a horrifying discovery.
Once “XX” is finished, the audience is left to ponder what the stories have in common — three of the four revolve around motherhood, and even the animated sequences touch on “creation” — and how the filmmakers’ gender has positively influenced the proceedings.
“XX” is a horror film that should inspire real discussion and real scares, and that’s an accomplishment. It shows directors Vuckovic, Clark, Benjamin, Kusama and Carrillo to be unique talents. One can only hope a sequel featuring these stellar filmmakers will follow.
3 and a 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Sheila Vand, Christina Kirk, Natalie Brown
Directors: Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Box”), Annie Clark (“The Birthday Party”), Roxanne Benjamin (“Don’t Fall”), Karyn Kusama (“Her Only Living Son”) and Sofìa Carrillo (animated sequences).
Running time: 80 minutes
Rated: R for horror violence, language and brief drug use.
The lowdown: Horror anthology helmed by female directors and starring female leads.
Showings: 9:30 p.m. Feb. 17 and 18; 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19, 21 and 23 at the Screening Room Cinema Cafe.