The wry horror anthology “XX,” a recent Sundance Film Festival premiere, gathers together four compact films by female writers and directors. The results offer a collective shiver (not a lot of shrieks here) for those in the mood for sprightly, short-form misfortune.
“What’s in the box?” asks the boy on the train, addressing his innocent but fateful question to a fellow passenger with a bright red package under his arm. Written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, “The Box” comes from a 1994 Jack Ketchum short story. While the story and Vuckovic’s screen adaptation both keep the parcel’s contents a secret, once 7-year-old Danny (Peter DaCunha) peers inside, he’s shaken to his core and promptly loses his appetite. For good.
Eat, why don’t you? The universal parents’ lament finds a crafty variation in “The Box.” While mother (Natalie Brown) and father (Jonathan Watton) wonder, haplessly, what’s eating Danny in the existential sense, their daughter (Peyton Kennedy) learns the secret from her brother, and she too stops eating. As shaped by Vuckovic, “The Box” is more about familial communication and corrosive silence than it is about literal horror.
The other three films are more direct, for better or worse. “The Birthday Party,” co-written (with Roxanne Benjamin) and directed by musician Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, features Melanie Lynskey as tightly wound, easily spooked Mary, whose preteen daughter’s party plans are derailed by the discovery of Dad’s dead body in the study. The humor here comes from Lynskey’s beguiling underplaying in difficult emotional circumstances. It’s a minor goof at best, though.
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Benjamin, a major contributor to the horror anthology “Southbound,” wrote and directed the third segment, “Don’t Fall,” an effective addition to the young-people-camping-and-dying horror subgenre. The moral here is simple: Do not trespass on sacred ground, lest the supernatural cave-drawing forces of evil have their way with you.
The most visually striking of the four, writer/director Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” imagines a sequel of sorts to “Rosemary’s Baby,” with Christina Kirk as the Mia Farrow character, if she escaped the clutches of the Manhattan devil worshippers and raised her problematic son as they fled from city to city. Now, though, Junior is turning 18, and he’s giving in to his darker side.
Kusama made the excellent low-budget psychological thriller “The Invitation,” and while this is a different sort of animal, she’s a major director in the works. She just needs the right full-length screenplay to show more of what she can do.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
Rated R. Time: 1:20.