Film Review: XX – ‘Her Only Living Son’

This is the fourth review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the third of these – Don’t Fall –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Her Only Living Son

Her Only Living Son is the final short in the series, written and directed by Karyn Kusama.

Cora (Christina Kirk) is a single mother, and her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to turn 18. However, the day before his birthday, she is called into school to discuss an incident in which Andy tore off a classmate’s fingernails. Andy becomes increasingly violent and Cora becomes increasingly afraid of him. The tension builds, as it is strongly hinted that Andy is not entirely human, but may in fact be the son of Satan.

What I Liked

Zacharek writes, it ‘deftly on the subterranean fears that often come with motherhood’, introducing the theme of motherhood (just as in The Box) but approaching it differently. (Time Magazine) This may remind horror-film fans of other works like Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, in which a child Antichrist is the central antagonist.

My Photo [XX - 5B - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix

In a similar manner to Don’t Fall, the story felt more like a horror than The Box or The Birthday Party. The score and occasional gore (nice rhyme) added to this.

However, whilst the premise of Her Only Living Son is suitably “horror” in nature, by introducing concepts like Satan and the Antichrist,  the execution of this was poor.

What I Disliked

Characterisation

Cora was a weak character, snivelling and sad – even before her son transforms into something abhuman.

In a similar manner to The Box, Cora’s behaviour as a mother does not empower women, but displays women as once again under the influence of the men in their lives; even the mailman seems to have more agency than Cora. Normally, gender roles in film wouldn’t bother me a great deal, but given that Her Only Living Son is directed by a woman, to create more presence of female film directors and better female representation in film, I thought the female characters would reflect this. Representation was an issue in other ways too.

My Photo [XX - 5C - Her Only Living Son]
Image via Netflix
Representation

When Andy’s “fingernail incident” was discussed at school, the parent of the victim, a black woman, is present. She is talked down to by both the headmistress (a white woman) as well as the other school staff (white men) and told she is the problem for speaking out against Andy’s behaviour.

Whilst this scene makes no sense anyway, I also realised that this mother (Lisa Renee Pitts) in Her Only Living Son was the only prominent person of colour since Lucy (Sanai Victoria) in The Birthday Party.  I’m not going to start accusations of “racism”, but I found it incredibly interesting that a project specifically designed to improve representation in film seemed to favour casting white men and white women – women who then became subservient to those men within the film.

Structure

The flashbacks at the beginning felt disjointed from the rest of the narrative – they didn’t provide enough information for what was happening to be understandable. Furthermore, the entire use of the flashback is undercut when Cora relays what happens via dialogue later in the film. I also found the ending dissatisfying because it wasn’t particularly clear as to what happened, and why it happened.

Was Andy exorcised? Was he punished by Satan? Why did Cora suffer too?

These are the sorts of questions it raised, but not in an enjoyable “cliffhanger” way, but in an “unfinished story” way.

Conclusion

Overall, despite its links to the supernatural and paranormal genres of horror, Her Only Living Son is the short I enjoyed the least.

Concluding Remarks

Having watched and reviewed all four shorts in XX, here are my final comments:

  • Was each film incredibly well-made?

No; there were some flaws in production and things that could have been bettered.

  • Was each film explicitly “horror” in nature?

No; sometimes the genre wasn’t clear cut, and was a mix of different elements.

  • Was the story of each film entirely perfect?

No; character development and storytelling technique were the two things I found most lacking across all four shorts.

My favourite film was probably The Box because I liked its story premise best, and I liked being able to interpret it.

  • Was the message of each short explicitly clear?

No; not always.

  • Were the films particularly feminist in either style or content?

No; I didn’t think so and at times representation was an issue.

  • However:

I have never spent such length discussing films before – albeit whether that’s an indication of XX being so good and thought-provoking or so bad it needs condemning I don’t know.

XX has been described as a ‘mixed bag’, which I feel is an apt description.

If you’re looking for some relatively light horror this Halloween, you could always give XX a go. If however, you prefer well-made horror films with … actual horror, I recommend you steer clear of XX.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

***

Thank you for reading this series on XX; I had great enjoyment in both watching each short, and writing each review.

– Judith

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Film Review: XX – ‘Don’t Fall’

This is the third review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the second of these – The Birthday Party –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

Don’t Fall

Don’t Fall hits closest to the mark as an independent paranormal horror film. It is the third short in the collection, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin.

Lemire agrees, writing that it is ‘the most traditional, straight-up horror film of the series’. However, she also argues it is the weakest link in the chain of the four shorts. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Don’t Fall is about four friends on an expedition in the desert. One of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool) stumbles across an ancient cave painting whilst exploring the cliffs that appears to be denoting an evil spirit. The group camp out for the night, and Gretchen is attacked and possessed by a creature. One by one, this “Gretchen Monster” attacks the other three friends.

My Photo [XX - 4B - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Liked

Surprisingly, what I liked most about Don’t Fall was its overuse of horror clichés and stereotypes. It was a refreshing difference to the oddities of The Box and The Birthday Party. Although, had this been a feature-length production, these clichés would have worked against, rather than for, the film.

In an interview, Benjamin said: ‘I wanted to make it very much like ‘we are in a horror movie’ from the second it opened.’ (Cryptic Rock Magazine)

I liked the establishment of tone early on in the short with the use of music; the horror score was good throughout and the transitions from light to darkness alert the audience that they’re clearly watching a horror film; something, I think, that was more difficult to establish in The Box and The Birthday Party.

My Photo [XX - 4 - Don't Fall]
Image via Netflix
What I Disliked

However, whilst the group of friends are picked off one by one in true Cabin In The Woods fashion – an admittedly exciting premise that has some decent scares –  because of a complete lack of characterisation (again) the audience are given no reason to care. The group’s fate is virtually insignificant; we don’t know or care why the evil spirit chose to attack them, nor do we find out anything about this spirit at all.

This is why Lemire wrote that this was the weakest of the four shorts, arguing: ‘we never get to know the characters enough to care about their fates’. (Roger Ebert, Reviews)

Ultimately, I think this reveals the issue of pairing the short film format with a long cast list.

There are plenty of independent short films on YouTube that are both enjoyable and successful, because they keep their narrative streamlined and focused on a single character, or minimal characters. Therefore, after 15 minutes, the audience feel as though they’ve had a reasonable glimpse into the character’s life, experiences, and personality. However, in films such as Don’t Fall, the addition of lots of characters, paired with the time limitations of a short film make it incredibly difficult to develop anyone’s characters in any real depth.

However, Zacharek praises the brevity of Don’t Fall, arguing that it is a ‘solid example of film-making economy’. (Time Magazine) Speaking of economy, the limited special effects budget was clear when it came to the “big reveal” of the monster, although credit must be given for Benjamin’s attempt.

Conclusion

Overall, the effect of Don’t Fall is one of a small scale paranormal horror that could definitely be improved but, left as is, is reasonably entertaining.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith

Film Review: XX – ‘The Birthday Party’

This is the second review in a series, talking about the anthology horror film XX.

What is XX?

XX contains four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

I wrote about the first of these – The Box –  yesterday. You can read this review here:

The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party is the second short in the collection, written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark, and directed by Annie Clark.

The story follows Mary, who is trying to arrange and host a birthday party for her daughter Lucy. However, when she finds her husband David’s dead body in his home office, she spends the time before the party attempting to hide his body, keeping it a secret both from Lucy, and the maid Carla.

My Photo [XX - 3B - The Birthay Party]
Image via Netflix

Firstly, this entire premise – trying to hide a dead body when you’re innocent of any foul-play – is utterly ridiculous, but I’m prepared to overlook this.

What I Liked

This short had a clearer narrative structure than The Box so it was easier to watch its beginning, middle and end unfold.

I particularly liked the ending – the use of slow motion, and accompanying music with its slow, loud beats and the echoes of children’s laughter in the background; it created tension and highlighted just how sinister a party it really was. The ending of The Birthday Party is also effective; it cuts to black after the “big reveal”, allowing for a few seconds of characters’ reaction shots but nothing more.

Furthermore, the use of some visual and audible jumpscares gave The Birthday Party that slightly unnerving tone – a tone which was translated through to the costumes. The panda suit was incredibly creepy, reminding me of the horror video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s. Furthermore, Carla’s pristine, cropped bob and black clothes made her look incredibly foreboding, contrasting powerfully with Mary’s flustered personality, ruffled bed hair and bright nightdress.

My Photo [XX - 3 - Birthday Party]
Image via Netflix

However, appearances can be deceiving.

What I Disliked

The character of Carla (played by Sheila Vand) never amounted to anything. She was presented as antagonistic – around each corner as a jumpscare, dressed entirely in black. My mind instantly imagined theories – maybe she’s in the house for an ominous reason – to kidnap Lucy, or be revealed as the culprit for David’s murder, or to attack Mary in some way?

No Carla contributed nothing overall to the plot except a few jumpscares by appearing suddenly. This was incredibly disappointing, making Carla a redundant character.

It makes you sit back and think: ‘What’s the point?’

A lack of satisfying characterisation is a theme across both shorts so far. Mary (played by Melanie Lynskey) also lacks any emotional response to stumbling across her dead husband, which was just utterly bizarre. Her severe anxiety is also hinted at but ultimately feels like throwaway part of her character.

Despite the traumatic party, the tone is oddly comical – exaggerated by a bright colour palette and huge open windows and layout; a far cry from the dark and gloomy household of The Box.

My Photo [XX - 3C - The Birthday Party]
Image via Netflix

Zacharek describes the film as having a ‘wry, comic charge’. Whilst I can see the case for this – Mary couldn’t hide David’s body for more than 5 minutes without a nosey neighbour knocking at the door or her having to deal with Lucy, who would wet herself for no reason whatsoever – this “comedy” felt jarring with the other elements in the film. (Time Magazine)

Speaking of Lucy, I found the children in The Birthday Party particularly frustrating. They say never work with children or animals, and I wish Annie Clark had taken this advice. There were so many scenes of children looking either directly at the camera lens, or looking where they weren’t supposed to, destroying the build-up of tension.

My Photo [XX - 3D - The Birthday Party]
Image via Netflix

The Birthday Party has been described as ‘a pristine, pastel dream, immaculate in its conception, its 1960s-flavoured wigs and dresses, its suburban mirage. Yet, something far more sinister hides within.’ (The Independent)

Whilst I can partially see this, and understand the direction Clark wanted the film to go in, I think The Birthday Party missed the mark.

Conclusion

The premise was ridiculous but interesting, and I enjoyed watching the narrative unfold – especially the ending. However, I think the film has some core issues: a lack of characterisation, some poor acting, and a failure to decide on a tone and genre and commit to it.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith