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Four Deadly Tales by Four Killer Women

It’s very early in the morning, and despite getting off of work relatively late last night, I made sure to awake at this time to finally experience the female driven Horror anthology, XX which is available now in select theaters as well as iTunes and Amazon VOD.  A few years have passed since I first learned of this endeavor, involving all female writers and directors, to create a new anthology of Horror.

The project was brought to fruition by my beloved Magnet and XYZ Films, alongside Snowfort Pictures and SoapBox Films who also helped in production. Although some of the talent originally attached to project was changed (Mary Harron, Jennifer Lynch, and The Soska Sisters were some names), it did not seem to deter fans’ interest in the anticipated thriller.

XX still fit the bill, it seemed, as a ‘Dream Team’ of ladies behind the lens, supported by an unprecedented number of female film crew members on the sets for each installment of the movie. 

Jovanka Vuckovic, right, introduces XX along with fellow directors Roxanne Benjamin, left, and Annie Clark at the Sundance premiere. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Since it’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, XX has found homes on numerous ‘Must See’ lists and hailed by not only Horror critics, but mainstream media members too.  It made this fan breathe a sigh of relief and appreciation. Finally, on such a massive platform, these talented ladies had a chance to show their wares and have their voice heard. It appeared to have gone very well.

Associate Producer and filmmaker Jovanka Vuckovic was known to say that females need to have more opportunities  in the industry, that women need to provide to each other those very opportunities whenever possible. Having XX as a soap box of sorts, to shout this message from, is as perfect as it can get to convey this heartfelt call to arms, in my opinion.

The Four Deadly Tales by Four Killer Women known as XX opens with Vuckovic’s (The Captured Bird, The Guest, and author of “Zombies! An Illustrated History of the Undead”) piece, entitled “The Box”.  The former Editor in Chief of Rue Morgue Magazine wrote and directed this adaptation of a Stoker Award-winning Jack Ketchum short, of the same name

It begins with the voice over of a mother on the subway with her two children, Danny and Jenny.  She speaks of difficulties keeping her two kiddos behaved and focused during the excitement of the Holidays. Her youngest, Danny, gives in to his curiosity and asks a stranger sitting next to him what is inside his gift box. The stranger obliges Danny, even after the mother expresses a dislike of her son’s bluntness. The boy peeks in, becoming clearly disturbed as his smile disappears. What unfolds after his subway ride home that Sunday afternoon is the beginning of a hunger strike. Multiple fantastic feasts are skipped by the usually hungry growing boy.

Three days go by and the concern from his parents intensify as his older sister Jenny continues to chow down normally while reading a “Hellboy” comic (an awesome nod to Guillermo del Toro who Executive Produced Jovanka’s Award Winning short The Captured Bird).  A Doctor visit is scheduled, but nothing physically wrong appears to the medical professional. However, an alarming conversation between the Doctor and Danny ensue. Danny states, “Everything is fine, I’m just not hungry is all.”  The Doctor replies, “Well, if you don’t eat Danny, you’ll die.” Very abruptly the young boy answers, “So?”

As his refusal to eat continues, Danny decides to share the dark discovery of what was inside the box to Jenny, and by Friday she is no longer eating either. In a desperate attempt to reach out to his son, the father sits with the boy in his room. Danny ominously leans close to his father and whispers something in his ear. The look upon his father’s face now echoes Danny’s on that fateful train ride home days prior.  With her entire family afflicted with some unknown and unseen reason to never eat, the mother’s days are spent tirelessly searching for the man who possessed the gift box to learn what was inside of it; to become whole again with her family.

“The Box” was highly unsettling to say the least, providing a taught psychological complexity and uneasiness to open XX with.  

Complimenting the astounding collection of stories featured in XX is the dark and inventive stop motion sequences, peppered with surreal photography, which serve as enjoyable intermissions between each segment. Sofia Carrillo did a brilliant job weaving in and out of each short with her own horror inspired creative stamp. Her contribution to the anthology really is remarkable, I must admit.  You have to see it to appreciate it.

Shifting gears a wee bit for the next segment, co-written by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound) and Annie Clark, “The Birthday Party” is Annie Clark’s (aka the musician St. Vincent) directorial debut. Lending her musical talents to score the short, Clark succeeds in setting a darkly comic and anxiety-ridden tone to this tale. Co-starring Sheila Vand (the amazing Iranian Vampire girl from A Girl Walk Home Alone At Night) and Melanie Lynskey (But I’m A Cheerleader, The Perks of Being A Wallflower), “The Birthday Party” is a completely different story compared to the rest, starting with a quite uncomfortable exchange between Vand and Lynskey.

It’s as if this segment provided the somewhat needed comic relief from the heavy assortment of shorts. Please understand, this is not me dismissing this particular addition to XX at all. I found myself laughing out loud a few times in its duration, welcoming and embracing the shift of cinematic tide Clark presented. The heaviness of “The Box”, I feel, would have sat uncomfortably long for some viewers if it were not for Benjamin and Clark collaborating on this. And because of this story, we know just how much a giant headed Panda suit runs — approximately $1000 and 2 ounces of medical grade marijuana. Anything to help divert the attention from the fact that the young Birthday Girl’s father committed suicide the night before her special day and left his body for his wife to deal with.

A tense and comical tragic opera is played out in this one, and I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

Next up is “Don’t Fall”, a segment created solely from the mind and Horror loving soul of Roxanne Benjamin. This is where things get a bit good and bloody. A group of four friends take a hiking excursion and end up finding some interesting, ancient rock wall art which, unbeknownst to the them, lies within sacred and perhaps cursed grounds. Their forbidden campsite is ground zero for one pal’s ensuing monstrous transformation after an epically scenic day.

Great practical effects and a bit of body horror, topped off with a bloodthirsty beast, equals another successful piece to the XX puzzle and hopefully additional belief in Benjamin’s abilities in making effective films. 

Completing the female-fueled anthology is Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) with her creation entitled “Her Only Living Son”. A devoted mother loves her only family, her son Andy. It’s the eve of his 18th birthday, and we can clearly tell something is a bit off with Andy. Cora, his mother, seems to be aware of this though, with feelings of frustration and fright finding their strength to shine through her ‘doting mother’ demeanor. After a violent attack upon another classmate, a meeting between Administrators at the school, Cora and the very concerned mother of the fellow student, is called. Rightfully so, the other parent is irate over Andy’s bizarre and brutal behavior, which has been displayed all his life apparently.

In a shocking conclusion of the parent/teacher meeting, the Educators elect to not punish Andy.  Instead, they convey a frightening kinship to him, an admiration towards the boy. This further frustrates Cora as she begins to feel she is losing touch with the son she has loved, protected and cared for his entire life — moving from place to hide from his Father. “I have dreams of an empire of misery” says the young man. “Sometimes I just want to rip you to pieces.”  The darkness which has followed Andy throughout his years, and which she desperately tried to shield him from, is now stronger than ever, and a stand must be made.

XX is a profoundly well-crafted anthology. 

It’s taught and thrilling, enabling each filmmaker to bring their own brand of creative talents to the table, which collectively makes for one hell of a Horror flick. I’m hoping this release can prove to those that need it that female filmmakers can put butts in seats and gain impressive VOD sales, while earning fans around the world.  XX was successful with it’s desire to showcase on a huge platform, the undeniable cinematic prowess this collection of ladies (and many more) can bring excited audiences. I like the sound of that, and so should all Horror fans.

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