"Four deadly tales directed by four killer women.” That’s the tagline for XX, the new horror anthology opening Friday at the Digital Gym. This type of press agent math never adds up. Has there ever been an omnibus film in which each individual component contributes its fair share of the heavy lifting?
By definition, an omnibus film generally houses three or more short films under one amorphous heading. It’s difficult enough for a film to impart one story, let alone three or four. One or more of the narrative legs invariably winds up short, and even a stack of script pages stuck underneath can’t keep it from wobbling.
What is it about this pesky, frequently multi-authorial sub-genre (often associated with horror films) that never works? The lure of numerous directors united under one banner is always cause for disappointment. Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and Woody Allen didn’t so much as collaborate on New York Stories as they provided three large pieces to a loosely fitting jigsaw puzzle. The general consensus: Scorsese dazzled, Allen amused, and Coppola fizzled.
Gender and genre are what bring and hold XX together. It’s certainly not a case of combined star power being used to lure patrons in. Of the four directors credited, only one, Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, The Invitation) rang a bell. This was Roxanne Benjamin’s (Southbound) second feature and the first for both Jovanka Vuckovic and Annie Clark. Animator and title designer Sofia Carrillo followed up on her Quay Brothers–inspired opening credits with a series of wraparound sequences that left one wondering why she didn’t merit a co-director credit.
XX opens strong with Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, by far the creepiest of the four shorts. Mom and her two children return from Christmas shopping. The young boy admires an attractive red package on the lap of the man seated next to him. The stranger obliges the lad’s request for a peek inside. “Nothing” is his response when his parents ask what he saw.
Whatever was in the package was enough to turn him off food. The overhead shots of mom’s nightly meals that act as chapter stops could have been taken from the pages of Bon Appétit. Still the boy won’t eat. After a few days, his older sister and father learn the secret, sending mom on a lifelong journey to ascertain the contents of the box. Your parents were right when they told you not to talk to strangers.
It’s also not hard to spot the weakest link in films of this kind, particularly those that include four subdivisions or fewer. Location is everything, and the segment that’s second in line never fails to disappoint. Such is the case of Annie Clark’s The Birthday Party, a one-joke premise that follows a frantic Melanie Lynskey, clad only in a diaphanous peignoir, as she tries and fails to prevent her estranged hubby’s corpse from putting in an appearance at her daughter’s 18th birthday party.
Be careful who you pick on in these PC times. When spoken in context, the cautionary title of Roxanne Benjamin’s Don’t Fall comes across with the force of a bullying jolt that has the power to turn Gretchen (Breeda Wool) into a monster. The shortest of the four, it acts as a suitable introduction to what follows.
In its own sly manner, Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son is a brief continuation of sorts of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Image Rosemary having ditched Guy early on. Renamed Cora (Christina Kirk), she ran off with their adopted son Andy (Kyle Allen). Skip ahead 18 years to find prodigious wunderkind ripping the fingernails off the class valedictorian — and the boy is so admired by his teachers the violent act of bullying will go unpunished.
Much to mom’s disgust, Andy gets around to expressing interest in getting to know his birth father. Cora fumes! Where was Satan when Andy had the chicken pox or needed help moving from school to school?
Two out of four is not a bad average, particularly when the half in question aren’t pestiferous enough to warrant a ruckus. Fans of this sort of thing won’t go hungry.
In closing, here are 10 Omnibus Films worth hopping: (1) Walt Disney’s supreme animated achievement Fantasia; (2) Lumière and Company, in which 40 directors make a short film using the original Cinematographe invented by the Lumière brothers; (3) Scan through John Landis and Spielberg (at his worst) to get to Joe Dante and George Miller, the meat of Twilight Zone: The Movie; (4) A dying philanthropist bequeaths a million bucks each to eight random names out of the phone book in If I Had a Million; (5) Elvis is the glue that binds Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train; (6) Woody Allen circumcises Dr. David Rubin’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex; (7) the Marty and Woody segments of New York Stories; (8) the Geraldine Paige and Donnie Melvin chapter titled A Christmas Memory in Truman Capote’s Trilogy; (9) Wong Kar-Wai’s pointedly melancholic short The Hand from Eros; (10) Alejandro Iñárritu’s deeply conflicted Babel.