Some of the scariest movies of the past few years are just 20 minutes long.
The first horror movie I ever saw was I Know What You Did Last Summer. I was 10 or 11 years old, and it was playing at a friend’s house. I saw perhaps 15 minutes of it. Removed of all context, and without seeing the ending, it still chilled me. For years afterwards, the scene in which a police officer is murdered stuck with me; a handful of images inflated and buried themselves in my mind.
When I revisited it around twelve years later, it was unspectacular. A disappointing ending to the story of one of the first times a film surprised and scared me. Nothing is scarier, it turns out, than being left to imagine an ending.
Anthologies are everywhere. Chances are you don’t own a copy of a singular fairytale, but a massive book of hundreds. We can’t get enough of series like Fargo, American Crime Story, and, True Detective (or at least, we couldn’t when it was good). Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe plays like a blown-up anthology at this point; a collection for people with two unbroken days to spare. But horror anthologies in particular are huge right now: The V/H/S and ABCs of Death franchises have been responsible for some of the best scares, and new talent, we’ve seen in a long time. You’re Next and The Guest duo Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett contributed to both, allowing them to stay sharp between features. The uneven Holidays from last year had some standout segments from newcomers, as well as some duds from established names (lookin’ at you, Kevin Smith).
This week sees the release of XX, the latest such anthology film, with a good conceit: All four 20-minute shorts are written and directed by women.
As it goes, XX is one of the more effective anthology horrors. It doesn’t have a narrative framing device like the V/H/S films, nor does it have a fun gimmick like ABCs. The four segments are held together by some unspectacular, spooky stop-motion bits between them, and nothing else. Still, the real-world concept of a film by multiple women, as unfortunate a novelty as that may be, elevates it to a little more than the sum of its parts.
The standout segment of XX is The Birthday Party, a taut, alarming, and often funny debut film by Annie Clark (you know her better as musician St. Vincent). If the confidence shown in this short is anything to go by, it’s not the last we’ll see of her behind the camera. Elsewhere, Karyn Kusama (director of the flawless The Invitation) tries her hand at a stylish chiller, Her Only Living Son, that plays like a lighter, all-grown-up Rosemary’s Baby. Roxanne Benjamin’s contribution (as well as co-writing The Birthday Party with Clark) is Don’t Fall, a straightforward monster-in-the-wilderness story anchored by great performances and the most assured visuals in the film. It’s also the only one out of the four that doesn’t feature motherhood as an explicit theme in its horror. It’s hard not to wonder if the film might have been more well-rounded with all quadrants reflecting this—or, conversely, if that’s a well too often visited by anyone trying to make a scary movie centered around women.
XX, like all the anthology films that have come before it, is inconsistent, almost by its very nature. We have yet to see an anthology masterpiece on film as we have on TV in the vein of The Twilight Zone, which itself is in a perpetual state of “about to be rebooted.”
What makes anthology films such an effective, increasingly popular vehicle for horror is precisely what made I Know What You Did Last Summer so terrifying to me as a child: the unknown, the uncanny. Many just-OK horror movies are criticized for their final acts, which too often reveal and overindulge to the point of ineffectiveness. That’s barely a problem for the best horror shorts, which have all the benefit of building up enough dread to land one or two good sucker punches, then leave you suddenly in the lurch. There’s no time for a meaningful sacrifice or the defeat of the threat—just the introduction, the establishment of the threat itself, then left forever to linger. To grow.
2017 sees the release of Rings and Saw: Legacy, their original counterparts able to scare the crap out of me, now relegated to boring, over-mythologized messes. XX might not be the long-awaited masterwork of anthology cinema, but it will stick with me long after most.
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