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

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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

Film Review: XX – ‘The Box’

I recently watched XX, an anthology horror film, and it prompted thoughts and critical comments.

What is XX?

XX is an anthology horror film. This means it is a framed narrative, consisting of four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.

XX is designed to display the talents of female directing within the film industry. It was released earlier this year, and has been given a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In an interview, Jovanka Vuckovic said: “I’ve been working in the horror genre for a very long time and I noticed the real lack of women and that we’ve been misrepresented in front of the screen and under-represented behind the camera for a very long time.” (Glide Magazine)

My Photo [XX - 1 - Poster]

However, whilst this is not a bad motivation to create an independent film, all four shorts of XX left me disappointed.

The Box

The Box is the first short film in XX, written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic.

The story follows Danny (played by Peter DaCunha), a young boy, who, whilst riding on a train with his mother and sister, watches an old man with a red box / present. Danny is curious, and the old man lets him look inside, and Danny is then left visibly unsettled. When the family return home, Danny refuses to eat anything. Danny then speaks privately to his sister and father – whispering unknown secrets in their ear – who then also begin refusing food. The family members become thinner and thinner, eventually dying of starvation, leaving the mother alone.

What I Liked 

I liked the premise of gradual starvation in The Box; I thought the ripple effect of this on each family member was suitably creepy. I also thought the use of sound, pale colours, and dim lighting helped present The Box as an unnerving story, with an undertone of melancholy.

Image via Netflix
Image via The Independent

The most disturbing part of The Box was the “nightmare” scene. I was fully prepared for this short to explore these themes of cannibalism and gore further, maybe offering an explanation as to why the family were starving themselves. Perhaps they were saving themselves for becoming abhuman, and saving themselves for a gruesome gorge later…

Alas, none of this happened. The fact it was a “nightmare” was not made explicit, its editing was poor, and so this scene jarred with the rest of the narrative. The “nightmare” scene was disregarded as quickly as it appeared, and did not contribute to any of the later story elements.

What I Disliked

There are some narrative flaws with The Box.  Its structure is incoherent – both the beginning and ending do not convey that this is a horror film. Furthermore, the ending is unsatisfactory, and doesn’t tie up most of the story elements such as:

  • Who was the old man?
  • What was in the box?
  • Why did everyone but the mother starve?
Image via Netflix

There was also clunky dialogue in places, which didn’t help.

In between other awkward and stunted sentences, certain phrases such as ‘the box’ and ‘I have to eat’ were repeated so often, it hit the message: ‘This film is about a box and starvation’ in too heavy-handed a way.

In addition to its problems with narrative structure and dialogue, characterisation was also lacking. As The Box is a short, there is very little time to get to know any of the characters and invest in … anything.

Zacharek writes that The Box is the ‘most unnerving of all these shorts’ that ‘feels as satisfying and wholly thought out as a full-length one’, an opinion I simply cannot agree with. The Box was admittedly unnerving but it ultimately fell short and left me wanting more – something which I am sure a full-length horror film would not have done. (Time Magazine)

Interpretation

My interpretation of The Box is that Danny, after seeing “nothing” in the box, is likewise reduced to nothing.

Image via Netflix

To me, this invokes thoughts of a curse – like the one Billy Halleck is stricken with in the Stephen King thriller Thinner – or the threat of being reduced to dust by the wrath of God (Genesis 3:19). Undoubtedly, these are ideas I’ve mapped onto the film because of my own background and experiences, but they are ideas nonetheless I believe would be viable within a horror film context.

Zacharek argues that The Box is about ‘motherhood fears’ in the midst of ‘working so hard to keep everything nice’. Again, I cannot agree with Zacharek’s opinion.

In contrast, I would argue that the mother in The Box, played by Natalie Brown, did not show anywhere near enough maternal instinct, love, concern, worry, or hard work. She barely batted an eyelid even when her little boy began to starve before her very eyes, and was seemingly willing to let him skip numerous meals without challenging this behaviour. Like a proper parent, her husband, played by Jonathan Watton, expresses concerns, and yet is met with a response as blasé as a shrug of the shoulders.

This is infuriating and makes no sense!

XX‘s marketing strategy was to market the film in as feminist a way as possible. Yet despite being made by a female horror director, and focusing upon a female protagonist, The Box has managed to present women in a negative light.

By creating a lacking short film, with a female lead who does virtually nothing to prevent the destruction of her family and shrugs off all maternal concern, it doesn’t do much to advance feminism.

Conclusion

I actually really liked the underlying concept of The Box –  I just wish there had been better character development, better story, and a more clearly defined “purpose” to the whole thing.

XX is available to watch on Netflix.

– Judith