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Keep the best, discard the rest: curating the perfect modern horror anthology

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All short-film collections are hit-and-miss, so we just grabbed the hits

Magnet Releasing

Anthology fever is sweeping the nation. Ryan Murphy has flooded TV with shows like American Horror Story and Feud, which switch up premises and casts from season to season. Black Mirror gave the digital generation our Twilight Zone. And cinema is currently experiencing a deluge of horror anthologies from the indie set. The past few years have seen groups of simpatico filmmakers off the mainstream radar come together for eclectic short-film collections, often united under an overarching theme or premise. As opposed to films comprised of vignettes from a single director (Italian master Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath is a fine example; Freddie Francis’ kooky Tales from the Crypt is another), newer anthologies like the V/H/S trilogy, Southbound, Holidays, and the ABCs of Death films offer a tasting menu of subjects and styles, as well as a survey of the most exciting emerging talents in horror.

The newest entry in the series is XX, a quartet of horror shorts made by female directors, all featuring female protagonists. A clear rebuttal to the disproportionately male makeup of most anthologies, this project speaks to what’s made the form so popular as of late. As director / producer Jovanka Vuckovic explained in an interview with Scream Horror Magazine, “I had noticed all these women being passed over for jobs on all the anthologies that were coming out. Women were virtually absent from these contemporary anthologies so I was thinking about crowdfunding one.” Anthologies let small-time or first-time filmmakers get valuable exposure, and the studio doesn’t have to sweat the cost and risk of a full-length feature. It’s a low-stakes way to break in fresh talent and scout out the James Wans and Adam Wingards of tomorrow.

XX suffers from the same affliction as other contemporary compilations: some of the segments are good, and others are decidedly weaker. Inconsistency is pretty much unavoidable for producers corralling as many as two dozen filmmakers for a single project. But every horror-shorts collection has standouts among the duds. We decided to play Dr. Frankenstein and ransack this new wave of horror anthologies for parts, stitching together an abominable creation from the best of the best. Below, we’ve culled enough diamonds in the rough to fill out a standard feature-film runtime. Consider it your viewer’s digest from hell.

Magnet Releasing

“The Birthday Party” — Annie Clark, XX

Better known as art-rock goddess St. Vincent, Clark tried her hand behind the camera for this deadpan, morbidly amusing re-creation of one girl’s traumatic childhood memory. Melanie Lynskey, looking perfectly haggard in a nightgown and robe, plays an upscale mother scrambling to stash her husband’s freshly overdosed corpse before guests start arriving for her daughter’s birthday party. Clark turns the character’s specific rich-mom anxieties — making sure the decorations are just-so, placating catty neighbors, emotionally nurturing a child in need — into a marvelously twisted joke with a punch line involving a panda costume and a vanilla cake. And the pulsating score is as well-composed as you’d expect from St. Vincent, who’s essentially the second coming of David Byrne.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“O Is for Orgasm” — Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, The ABCs of Death

Drawing from the Italian tradition of highly stylized slasher pictures known as giallo, the French husband and wife directorial team created this sensuous, sensual wisp of a film. Expressionistic footage of a couple engaged in passionate lovemaking cross-cuts with such suggestive imagery as a popping bubble, a burning cigarette, and a black glove. They don’t need a linear plot to generate terror — instead, they create ambient fear with manipulations of color and sound, turning the elements of cinema against the audience. Extreme close-ups get uncomfortably intimate and keep viewers on edge from the first frame; juxtaposing the sound of stretching leather with a shot of the individual folds of skin on a pair of quivering lips is the stuff of nightmares, made all the more unsettling because it never coheres into sense.

Photo: XYZ Films

“Mother’s Day” — Sarah Adina Smith, Holidays

This slyly feminist yarn begins with a young woman visiting her doctor with some lady troubles — specifically, she gets pregnant without fail every single time she has sex. After upward of 20 abortions, she’s at her wit’s end, and she agrees to look into some [dramatic pause] unorthodox birth control methods. A weekend sojourn out into the desert with a clan of witches and a flask of ayahuasca takes a turn for the Satanic in short order, and the ensuing ritual doubles as a commentary on the culture of compulsory womanhood in more old-fashioned regions. Smith sets up some sumptuous visual imagery as well, evoking old Tarot designs and other medieval-mystical detritus.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“D Is for Dogfight” — Marcel Sarmiento, The ABCs of Death

Think Marley and Me, as rewritten by the screenwriters handling the Saw movies. In a wordless pas de deux with only driving industrial music for a score, a prizefighter squares off against a feral dog for a crowd of cash-waving degenerates. Over a series of slow-motion shots that are simultaneously majestic and sickeningly brutal, man and canine go at each other with all their rabid might, bared teeth and droplets of blood soaring through the air. The divisions between human and beast break down as the man taps into his animal side to muster the strength required to get the drop on the pooch, until an unexpected turn changes the dynamic. Call it a music video if you like, but the average music video would be lucky to have a tenth of Sarmiento’s pure stylistic verve.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“Amateur Night” — David Bruckner, V/H/S

Three dirtbags concoct the perfect formula for a night of partying: hit up the nearest watering hole, bring home the most suggestible bimbo in the joint, and surreptitiously shoot a little amateur porno using a camera concealed in a pair of glasses. They couldn’t have picked a worse target than Emily, an eerily reserved woman who charms them with little more than a dead-eyed expression and the words “I like you.” It’s no surprise that this plan leads to gruesome places, but the novel POV from the pervert’s-eye view makes every sudden scare come out of nowhere.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“H Is for Head Games” — Bill Plympton, The ABCs of Death 2

The cult animator’s two-minute submission straddles the line between gore and whimsy with a simple sketch of a man and woman locking lips, and locked in a violent battle for dominance. Her eyebrows become spidery legs clawing at his eyes, his ears turn into UFOs raining down a hail of laser beams, they shoot eyeballs at each other like bombs and gatling-gun bullets. The back-and-forth gets more hectic until it verges on the avant-garde, ending with both their faces reduced to smoking craters. The surreal elements are made even more vivid by Plympton’s distinctive style of animation, characterized by scribbles that uncomfortably wiggle in place even as the characters stay still.

Photo: The Orchard

“Siren” — Roxanne Benjamin, Southbound

As a producer on the V/H/S films and a contributor to XX, Benjamin has positioned herself at the heart of the indie horror scene, and she made her biggest splash with this chilling directorial debut. An all-girl rock trio touring through the desert gets a flat tire and hitches a ride with an odd-mannered couple, who invite them to spend the night. Are they weird in the way anyone picking up a hitchhiker would have to be weird, or is something up with the sinister meatloaf they serve their young women? Even on her first outing in the director’s chair, Benjamin builds tension with the steady hand of a seasoned pro, and the film engages with Southbound’s unifying elements of guilt and grief in a thoughtful, organic way.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“Her Only Living Son” — Karyn Kusama, XX

The Rosemary’s Teenager joke pretty much makes itself: a single mother’s adolescent son begins acting out, as high schoolers do, but his surly demands to get out of his room have an unnerving dark undertone. When she notices him eating the curdled blood out of an egg he’s just cracked, she fears the worst, and before you can say “Polanski redux,” she’s locked in a hallucinatory custody battle with Lucifer himself. Kusama wowed audiences with her lo-fi thriller The Invitation last year, and the same slow-burning suspense that made her feature a critical darling invigorates this briefer work. Most importantly, she doesn’t overstay her welcome. She excuses herself just as the homage starts to play itself out.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“D Is for Deloused” — Robert Morgan, The ABCs of Death 2

This nasty little stop-motion curio makes full use of its medium to convey icky textures in a way conventional film can’t. After a death-row inmate undergoes a lethal injection, a fantasy sequence reincarnates him in the form of a giant, gleaming grub and lets him take bloody revenge on his executioners. It’s a simple two-beat premise, so Morgan instead derives all of his fear-factor power from the revolting appearance of his figurines, all greasy and deformed like demonically possessed melted candles. This skin-crawling sketch picks up where the great Polish animator Jan Svankmajer left off, grabbing the wheel and veering into stomach-churning territory.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” — Joe Swanberg, V/H/S

DIY horror stalwart Swanberg tweaked the found-footage fad by shooting this short through a series of video chat sessions, presaging the desktop cyberhorror of Unfriended a few years later. A med student keeps up his long-distance relationship while he’s at college, and grows concerned about a bump on his girlfriend’s arm and other strange symptoms. The cause of her strange maladies is too shocking to spoil, but suffice to say that the detached perspective Swanberg creates for the big reveal makes the whole situation even more horrifying. The internet, already a pretty upsetting place as is, offers plenty of potential for fear, and Swanberg breaks long-awaited ground with this freak-out.

Photo: Magnet Releasing

“Y Is for Youngbuck” — Jason Eisener, The ABCs of Death

This isn’t the most sensitive depiction of pedophilia out there, but then again, Eisener couldn’t care less about trying. He’s more interested in indulging his nostalgia for the John Carpenter-directed gems of the ‘80s, complete with all the lurid neons and synth soundtracks. A po-faced kid takes violent revenge on his rapist after getting abused during a hunting excursion, and Eisener works the sight of the deer (its lifeless black eyes, the mighty arch of its antlers) for all it’s worth. But even as he cross-cuts between flashes of the repulsive, he remains dedicated to his throwback aesthetic, assembling pleasing swirls of light and color. It’s a potent combination, even when it flips viewers’ stomachs.

Photo: The Orchard

“The Way Out/The Way In” — Radio Silence, Southbound

This twinned pair of shorts begins and concludes Southbound, but it’s more of a Möbius strip than a set of bookends. While both films share the theme of regret over a lost soul the protagonist couldn’t save (as well as a more literal connection), the former has mystical concerns, and the latter is a home-invasion thriller. In “The Way Out,” two men tear a swath down a nameless highway, with eerie floating creatures in close pursuit. “The Way In” finds a family on vacation senselessly assailed by masked intruders, and Dad appears to know why. Unified by the surgical precision of the Radio Silence brain trust (aka Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella, and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) in how they dole out frights, the two shorts make a fitting end to this hodgepodge of the macabre.