Great horror cinema is so often about playing the long game, waiting out the slow burn, that it can be tricky to achieve in short form: A 20-minute runtime affords even the deftest filmmaker precious little room to nurture intrigue, ramp up tension and deliver a bone-deep payoff. Four talented female filmmakers give it their best shot in the polished portmanteau pic “XX,” with predictably mixed results — though it says much about the difficulty of the proposal in the first place that the most satisfying entry in the quartet isn’t really a horror film at all. That’d be the comically antic contribution by cooler-than-thou musician-turned-filmmaker Annie Clark (better known in the media as St. Vincent), whose auspicious directorial presence alone adds a coat of cult potential to the project. Meanwhile, more experienced hands Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin and Jovanka Vuckovic turn in more traditional chillers in a range of registers, though none achieves more than a passing shiver.
A disparate palette of styles is to be expected, even required, in a venture of this nature. From Clark’s high-kitsch farce to Kusama’s solemn spin on Ira Levin, there’s no aesthetic throughline to be found here. (Unless, that is, you count the structural glue provided by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, whose ornately gothic haunted-toybox interstitials link the segments and prettily go with nothing at all.)
Conceptually, however, “XX” doesn’t hang together as well as it might. Though it’s a rare, welcome showcase for female talent in a largely male-steered genre — with all four films written and directed by women and boasting active female protagonists — anyone expecting a unified feminist subtext from the who will come away disappointed. While three of the films deal compellingly with the psychological strain of motherhood, Benjamin’s straightforward monster romp stands in the way of that becoming a binding theme. (At an earlier stage, directors Mary Harron and Jennifer Lynch were set to complete shorts for “XX”; one wonders what further dimension they’d have brought to the collective.)
Vuckovic kicks things off with “The Box,” the only adaptation among the four; drawn from a short story by Jack Ketchum, it’s also the most teasingly ambiguous of these mini-narratives. On a pre-Christmas family shopping expedition to New York City, young Danny (Peter LaCunha) is intrigued by the large red gift box carried by a sinister stranger, though after being offered a look inside, the boy goes strangely, silently off-color. From that evening on, he refuses to eat; his mother (Natalie Brown) watches helplessly as this inexplicable affliction gradually spreads to her husband (Jonathan Watton) and daughter (Peyton Kennedy). Vuckovic builds this uncanny scenario with a genuinely queasy command of atmosphere and a bloodied streak of grotesque humor, as this perfect suburban family is practically living dead by Christmas — but it’s too evasive to leave the viewer lastingly unnerved.
Next, Clark ups the comic ante in “The Birthday Party,” a delirious quick-sketch farce grounded by the anxious energy of Melanie Lynskey — the most prominent name in “XX’s” combined ensemble, making the best of its most flamboyant role. Overplaying just enough to match the film’s pop-art hyper-reality, Lynskey plays a flailing, manic mother attempting to throw a perfect birthday bash for her seven-year-old daughter. It’s a plan that moves even further past her capabilities when she finds her husband dead and, in a defiant act of illogic that might be the film’s most horror-evoking trope, decides to keep up appearances anyway. Conceived, played, designed and scored (by, naturally, St. Vincent herself) in a gaudy, inventively high key, it plays less like a horror film than an extract from one of Liz Taylor’s more eccentric late-’60s vehicles, leaving one interested to see what Clark could deliver at feature length.
Clark’s co-writer Benjamin (a horror-anthology pro, having contributed to “Southbound” and co-produced the “V/H/S” films) next takes the reins in “Don’t Fall”: perhaps the most disposable of the four, but also the most faithful to its chosen strain of the genre. We’re in 1980s creature-slasher territory here, as a college-student camping trip goes violently awry when the kids stray into some stretch or other of sacred desert. There’s less going on here at the level of character or internal terror than in the other three, making it less interesting as an individual entity. But it’s a skilfully coordinated retro runaround, and a showreel that demonstrates Benjamin’s viability as a director for any commercial horror franchise.
As the most established director here, Karyn Kusama comes to “XX” with less to prove, particularly after a successful foray into creep-out fare with “The Invitation.” Still, she reveals a fresh, freakier side of herself in “Her Only Living Son,” which stars Christina Kirk as a(nother) nerve-raddled mother foiled in her well-meaning attempts to mark her child’s birthday. This time it’s the child himself, an abusive, shape-shifting brute who resembles Rosemary’s Hormonal Adolescent, who’s the chief obstacle to her plans, while the woman’s entire world turns against her over the course of the day; sporadically spin-prickling and well-played by Kirk, it’s the film here that feels most like a potential feature hemmed in by its brevity.
Technical attributes across the four visually distinct films are solid, with particular standouts in the viscerally grisly makeup effects in Vuckovic’s entry and the garishly heightened design contributions to Clark’s. Even at their least individually striking, each of these mismatched tasters stirs an appetite for a fuller, meatier meal from its maker — cooked as bloodily rare as possible, please.