THE SCARER SEX
Director: Jovanka Vuckovic, St. Vincent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin
Screenplay: Jovanka Vuckovic, St. Vincent, Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jack Ketchum
Starring: Natalie Brown, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha
Review: David Stephens
If the horror community sees itself as an exclusive club, populated by open-minded enthusiasts of all genders and good-hearted fans often vilified by those who don’t “get” it (and let’s be honest, most of us do), then it hasn’t always been viewed that way by many “outsiders”. During the “video nasty” scares and slasher fads in the 70’s and 80’s, it was often seen as a cinematic genre that exploited women and treated that sex with little respect. Of course some horror movies were like that, but those sorts of films exist in any genre. In fact horror has long been silently subverting the predominantly male grip over story leads and filmmakers. Films like the original “I Spit on your Grave” (aka “Day of the Woman” which is a telling title) slyly emasculated aggressive misogyny (in a literal sense in fact) in the guise of exploitation, and let’s not forget that the vast majority of slasher pics have/had heroic female protagonists battling a grotesque male villain and usually winning. Compare that with the vast majority of action movies through the decades. These days we have events like Women-in-Horror month to promote more equality in the making of our favourite type of films, and we have the tireless and hard-working talent of people like Jen & Sylvia Soska, Jessica Cameron, and Alice Lowe to encourage more ladies to get behind the genre camera. With that in mind, the production of a female-led horror anthology sounds like a good time and long overdue. So we have “XX” which is obviously a reference to the standard female chromosome combination, rather than pointing to material of an “adult” nature. Now on DVD and VOD in the UK, YGROY prepares for a dose of oestrogenre…
There’s no wraparound story or framing device as such, instead we get brief segments showing the adventures of sentient dollhouse in a deserted building, created by creepy stop-motion from animator Sofia Carrillo. The first story is “The Box” (based on a short story by Jack Ketchum) and updated/directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. It features Natalie Brown (on-screen mother of the hateful Zach in “The Strain”. God, we hate that kid!!) as the Mom whose young son takes an interest in the gift-wrapped box being held by a stranger in a train, leading to some dark days for the family. The second entry is “The Birthday Party”, which is co-written/directed by Annie Clark (better known as musician “St Vincent”). This stars Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures”) as woman who just will NOT let anything spoil her daughter’s 7th year celebration, and makes some dubious decisions. The third act is “Don’t Fall” written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (“Southbound”), and is probably the most “mainstream” story, focusing on 4 hikers who encounter some bad times after finding some native American paintings on a cliff wall. The last story is “Her Only Living Son”, and is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (“The Invitation” & “Jennifer’s Body”). This one follows the plight of a single Mom (Christina Kirk), whose son is approaching manhood and a (really) uncertain future.
The very nice thing about “XX” is that it has such a mixture of tones and styles in the differing segments. There’s one tale of moody escalating dread, another is an intentional farce with jet-black humour (and a brilliant alternate title revealed at the end), one is a well-worn horror concept skewed to give it a much more personal impact and emotional depth, and the remaining one is a more straight-forward “creature feature”. That’s not bad for four shorties that don’t have running times beyond twenty minutes. In fact, for pretty much all of the segments there is definitely room for extended footage, and you could easily see any one being used as the basis for a feature length offering.
The film doesn’t (for the most part at least) have obvious jump scares or punch-you-in-the-face frights, although “Don’t Fall” comes close. Nor does it have jaw-dropping revelations or last-minute sting-in-the-tail twist endings. So viewers expecting something like that, may well be underwhelmed. But then again, neither does it have a gender-bashing agenda, finger-wagging morals, or groan-worthy “GI Jane” life messages. This is a collection of solid genre stories that just happens to have been made solely (and starring) women. In this day and age, that shouldn’t really be a “thing”, and the fact that this is the “first” is actually surprising. Its success and ability to engage just depends on the quality of the filmmaking, and nothing else. The gender of the directors and writers may aid in the depiction of some mother/child elements, but you could say that about any father/child based film with a male director in theory.
The “horror” in three of the stories is more about emotional fears and gut-punches. Parental concerns are twisted into something outside of normal parameters. The thought of a son/daughter being affected on a physical and mental level by a force you don’t understand, or a parent’s helplessness at “losing” a connection with a child to adulthood and outside influences. And don’t think that because three of the stories orbit around a mother that it’s obvious or “sappy” in any way, because the stories are solid and work well in their varying styles.
There are some good performances in there as well. Christina Kirk shines as the devoted/fearful mother, as does Natalie Brown as the matriarch who ever-so slowly crumbles into desperation and a very subtle final narration. The relative shortness of the segments does mean that some characterisation is unavoidably thin and some roles are negligible, but that’s the nature of many short films. However, there is still some space for digs at social snobbery (“Birthday Party”) and fine line between protection and responsibility (“Son”).
Apart from a couple of sequences (including one rather disturbing slide into “fantasy” cannibalism and some nicely realised prosthetics), there’s not buckets of blood and entrails. Mostly this is horror of the more subtle variety. If you do prefer your anthologies to be more bombastic and more frenetically paced (along the lines of “Creepshow”), or tales resplendent with nasty final twists (any comparable Amicus collection), then this may not work for you. But if you are in the market for a solid little horror compendium (something which feels lacking since “V/H/S” went “Viral”), then this is definitely one of the better ones alongside “Southbound”. Yes, it’s important for the industry that something like this exists, and we’d love to see a follow-up with more female filmmakers taking the opportunity to spread their horror wings. But outside of that aspect, this still works in its primary function to entertain genre aficionados with some kills and spills. Xxcellent stuff to get xxcited about.
DVD Extras: A brief 3 ½ minute “behind-the-scenes” feature + 20 minutes’ worth of interviews with all five of the filmmakers, that explores the reasoning for their segments and their thoughts on women in the genre.