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Film review: 'XX'


The latest entry in the recent resurgence of horror anthology, "XX" benefits from an inspired hook: each of its four stories were written and directed by and star women in the lead roles (hence the female chromosome-referencing title). Made in direct response to the lack of opportunities for women filmmakers, particularly in the frequently male-dominated horror genre, the entertaining film has shivers and style to spare. What it lacks, however, is any true outright scares.

The best idea the filmmakers had was to do away with the flimsy wraparound story that anthologies typically use to tie its stories together. Instead, Mexican animator Sofia Carrillo provides intricately stylized stop-motion interstitials built around her Victorian aesthetic. Her creepy creations perfectly set the eerie mood.

Jovanka Vuckovic is first up, with the most unnerving tale in the omnibus, "The Box." Adapted from a Jack Ketchum story, it follows a mother (Natalie Brown) whose young son suddenly stops eating after an odd encounter with a fellow passenger on a commuter train. Vuckovic wrings tension from the breakdown of familial communication, and the film increases the dread as it goes -- although the payoff doesn't quite pack the intended punch.

Annie Clark (better known by her musician stage name, St. Vincent) makes her directorial debut with the surreal, darkly comedic "The Birthday Party," from a script she co-wrote with Roxanne Benjamin. Indie film goddess Melanie Lynskey stars as an anxious housewife struggling to cover up a terrible secret on the event-filled day of her daughter's 8th birthday party. It's an amusing premise, but hindered by Clark's shaky first-time direction. Still, as a visual stylist she shows a lot of promise.

A desert camping trip takes a violent turn when a group of friends encounter a malevolent, ancient evil in "Don't Fall," a solo effort from writer-director Roxanne Benjamin ("Southbound"). This is the most traditional of the four stories -- a fairly straightforward creature feature -- but Benjamin has trouble ramping up the necessary narrative tension in the condensed running time. Oddly, it's also the only story that doesn't center around motherhood anxieties, keeping that theme from becoming a throughline. There's great makeup effects though.

Finally, writer-director Karyn Kusama ("The Invitation") demonstrates her characteristic control of mood in "Her Only Living Son," about a mother who's deathly afraid of the darkness growing in her son as he approaches his 18th birthday. Strong performances help overcome a somewhat stilted script for a solid entry overall.

While all four of the segments in "XX" have their moments, each one falls slightly short of the mark in one way or another. There's clearly a plethora of talent behind the camera, and it's wonderful to spotlight some fresh voices in the horror genre. But I had high hopes that the results would be good for more than just mild chills.