J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Sundance ’17: XX

Horror movies introduced us Mrs. Voorhees before we ever met her son Jason, as well as Annie Wilkes in Misery, Asami Yamazaki in Audition, and a host of Japanese lady ghosts, with long flowing hair. Horror fans understand better than anyone everyone is a potential serial killer, regardless how vulnerable they might look. That doesn’t leave any room for sexism, but four (or five counting the interstitial animation) women filmmakers will drive the point home in the anthology film XX (trailer here), which screened at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box is based on a Jack Ketchum story rather than the previously adapted Richard Matheson tale, but the vibes are not completely dissimilar. Thus far, Susan Jacobs has balanced motherhood and her professional work quite well, but while on the train back to the suburbs, she fails to adequately discourage her bratty son Danny from looking in a stranger’s gift box. At the time, he has little reaction, but he permanently loses his appetite thereafter. In addition, he seems to be able to pass along the mysterious malady to other family members.

The Box has a terrific look and feel that sort of brings to mind Todd Haynes’ Carol, but it is by far the better film. Vuckovic manages to give it a fable-like vibe, yet also keep it concretely grounded in its sheltered Westchester (or wherever) world. Natalie Brown is also quite compelling as the distressed mother.

In contrast, Annie Clark’s The Birthday Party is played mostly for gory laughs, but they mostly land thanks to a game cast. About an hour before her daughter’s meticulously planned birthday party, Mary is alarmed to find her husband has dropped dead, so she goes to extreme lengths to cover-up his death. It is a blackly comic one-darned-thing-after-another yarn, but it features Sheila (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) Vand as Carla, the intimidating and ridiculously glamorous housekeeper as a happy bonus.

Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall is easily the most conventional of the assembled films in XX. By day, a group of campers off-handedly discover some rock carvings, but by night they realize they are not alone out there. Benjamin crafts some atmospheric moments, but we have been here many times before.

Happily, XX ends on a high note with Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son. Cora’s son is about to turn eighteen and he is starting to exhibit behavioral problems—yet none of the teachers or administrators at his school seem to alarmed by his sudden aggression. Of course, we have our suspicions why that will be quickly confirmed. Essentially, Kusama’s contribution is a clever riff on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, suggesting what might have happened if the pregnant mother had ditched Ralph Bellamy for a real doctor sooner. Kusama steadily cranks up the tension quite insidiously, while Christina Kirk is really quite terrific as the ferociously protective Cora.

Her Only Living Son is probably the best full and discrete installment in XX, but the most distinctive parts are probably Sofia Carrillo’s macabre stop-motion animated wrap-around segments, featuring creepy porcelain dolls and all sorts of haunted house trappings. It is a fairly solid collection, but the first two constituent films go more for feelings of alienation and betrayal or gross-out laughs rather than outright scares. Regardless, the work from Kusama, Vuckovic and Carrillo, along with the presence of Vand and Kirk easily carries the full film. Recommended for fans of horror and the darkly ironic, XX screened at this year’s Sundance, in advance of its February 17th theatrical opening in select cities, including the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.

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