Saturday, February 25, 2017

Short Film Spotlight: XX

Welcome back to another installment of SHORT FILM SPOTLIGHT, where we highlight some of the best short films out there.  This week, we take a look at this year's amazing short film horror anthology...XX.

Four female creative figures in the horror genre joined forces this year to create a fascinating anthology of horror short films. Premiering at Sundance in January, XX is so named due to each of its four short films clocking in at or around twenty minutes in length. Each of the four short films are very different, encapsulating different niches of the horror genre. Critical reactions to XX have been mixed. However, I found it to be some truly engaging, creative horror that I absolutely loved.

Mild Spoiler Warning: In discussing a series of twenty-minute shorts, any real details about plot can amount to a fairly significant spoiler due to short runtime. I’ll do my best to only discuss what is absolutely necessary so as to not spoil anything for you, the reader and the viewer.

First of all, XX is set within a stop-motion frame “narrative” of strange, moderately disconcerting images of a sentient dollhouse, directed by Sofia Carillo. These disjointed, oddly-mesmerizing sequences are both technically-excellent in their stop-motion animated style and beautiful examples of ways to craft an atmosphere of horror without dialogue or even plot. Some of the most haunting images of the movie can be found in these thirty second-segments in between each short film.

The first short film of XX is “The Box,” a short written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. “The Box” is my favorite of the four shorts. The horror imagery of this short film is done in such a quietly artful fashion that, at times, it felt more like a drama than a horror. In “The Box,” a mother watches as her son mysteriously stops eating after seeing the contents of a red box on a train. That is, truly, it. The horror of the story is entirely psychological as you watch a family crumble. In a story so simple, one would not expect such an enthralling experience. However, what Vuckovic accomplishes in “The Box” is truly incredible and completely worth seeing.

The second short, “The Birthday Party,” is the most surprising and unorthodox. I still struggle to even dub it a “horror” short. In “The Birthday Party,” Mary, a neurotic, anxious mother, discovers the body of her dead husband on the day of her daughter’s birthday party. Throughout the course of the short, Mary struggles to maintain her reputation of propriety and keep her daughter from discovering the ugly truth. The situation gets more and more ridiculous as guests begin to arrive and the day falls more and more apart as Mary descends deeper and deeper into a sort of resigned insanity. The comedic beats of this short entertained me and, in the end, I felt a fair amount of tension. However, this short felt strangely out of place and is, in my opinion, the weakest of the four short films. This is the directorial debut of Grammy-award winning musician, St. Vincent. I am definitely excited to see what comes next for her, both in and out of the horror genre.

The third short is the most straight-forward, directed by Roxanne Benjamin, producer of the V/H/S franchise and director of 2015’s Southbound. In “Don’t Fall,” viewers are treated to a fairly standard story about evil spirits and hauntings. The direction of this short is impeccable, each shot being framed in a tense way that pushes you to the edge-of-your-seat. Nothing is groundbreaking, but nothing is done poorly, outside of some weak acting (which, as a whole, is a weak spot of all four shorts in XX). “Don’t Fall” is the most forgettable of the four shorts, solely based on its lack of anything out of the ordinary and not on any weakness in and of itself.

Finally, XX ends on “Her Only Living Son,” the short I was most excited to see. “Her Only Living Son” is the creation of Karyn Kusama, the director of last year’s The Invitation, which you can read my review for HERE. The Invitation earned a spot in my top films of last year, so I was naturally very excited to see anything else from this visionary figure in the horror genre. First off, if you liked The Invitation, “Her Only Living Son” is a must-see. This is a short film I won’t spoil in any way because it is both so oddly fascinating and simple, but also so deeply complex and intricate below the surface. In terms of mood, it is a triumph of horror filmmaking. Performances and direction in “Her Only Living Son” are far beyond anything else in XX. Kusama is truly a rising star in the world of horror. I didn’t find myself as engaged or interested as I did with “The Box,” but that could simply come down to a matter of personal taste. The two bookend shorts of XX are truly the best of the four and some of the best horror I’ve seen in quite a while.

So, all in all, XX contains two phenomenal shorts and two passable ones. These four shorts are not related in any way, which could be frustrating to some viewers who seek some sense of continuity within the anthology. However, “The Box” and “Her Only Living Son” truly make XX a must-see for any fans of the horror genre. I would also argue that people who don’t traditionally like horror might even enjoy XX more than your typical horror fan, due to its style that walks the line very cautiously between horror and drama. XX is, by no means, for everyone. There are valid criticisms of its disjointed style, its weak acting, and its lack of creativity within its middle two shorts. However, for me? XX felt like it was made for me, combining everything I love about horror in the atmospheric tension and the dark, morbid stylings and everything I love about drama, giving me characters that, even in the space of twenty minutes, felt fleshed out. There were genuine moments of compelling heart built into each of the four stories, which is enough to elevate XX above other horror efforts I have seen. Please go check out XX on VOD or in a theater and support independent horror!

Jonathan’s Score: 8/10

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