When reviewing a horror anthology film, you can usually expect a mixed bag of highs and lows, some hits and some misses. XX stands out for a very simple reason: every segment is good. Each of its four short films (and the animated sequences that connect the segments) are beautifully shot and distinct. Even the weakest segment still delivers thrills and chills.
The other noteworthy thing about XX is that each short film features a female director, was written by a woman, and has a female main character (in an interview director Jovanka Vuckovic talked about how an effort was made to hire female crewmembers as well). It’s a breath of fresh air, considering that the majority of horror anthology films have featured only male directors (for example, V/H/S and V/H/S 2 collectively featured sixteen different directors, all of them men). It helps an anthology film to have a gimmick or theme, but XX’s line-up of women directors goes beyond that to address the need for more women in film.
The project was spearheaded by Jovanka Vuckovic, a horror expert who spent years as the editor of the horror mag Rue Morgue. She directs the first short film in the anthology, “The Box,” an adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s short story of the same name. In adapting it Vuckovic makes some changes, the main one being switching the main character’s gender from male to female, but the core of the story stays intact. The story follows Susan, a woman who has the prototypical happy suburban life: blandly handsome husband, two kids (a boy and a girl), a nice house. While out Christmas shopping with his mother and sibling, Susan’s son, Danny, sits next to a stranger on the subway. When Danny asks the stranger what’s inside the box he’s carrying, the man lets Danny peek under the lid. As Danny looks in the smile fades from his face.
The viewer doesn’t get to see what’s in the box, but we do get to see the apparent fallout, since after glimpsing its contents Danny refuses to eat. At first his parents chalk it up to childhood fickleness, but as days go by and Danny continues to refuse food Susan and her husband Robert understandably grow more and more worried. Susan tries to prise out a reason from Danny, but he refuses to explain himself, merely states he’s not hungry. Trying to use logic with him doesn’t work; at one point a doctor tells Danny that if he doesn't eat he’ll die. “So?” Danny replies, his eyes already sunken.
Jack Ketchum stories often tap into a feeling of helplessness and leverage that to maximize their horror. Susan loves her son, but no matter what she does she cannot help him. One of the hardest things about being a parent is knowing that you’d do anything for your child while simultaneously being confronted with the reality that there are circumstances in which there might be nothing you could do. Watching your child slip away from you (in the case of “The Box” seemingly of their own volition, or at least for reasons far beyond your understanding) is a type of real-world horror scarier than any boogey man. What Danny saw in the box doesn’t matter so much as the existential dread it dredges up.
For the most part the horror in “The Box” is psychological, but there is one brilliantly gory scene which manages to be both disturbing and illuminating. In a dream sequence, Susan is lying upon the family’s dinner table, her family sitting down around her. Her husband craves her up and serves up slices of her flesh to their children, all with glowing faces, h. All are soon happily gobbling up Susan’s flesh (the sound design in this scene is amazing, not to mention the lighting: Susan’s bloody flesh practically seems to glow). The kicker in the scene is Susan’s reaction to being eaten alive: her face is beatific, even euphoric, as her family consumes her.
“The Box” is well paced, never giving the audience any respite as the family withers away, but there are a few parts that stretch believability. For example, eventually Susan’s husband and daughter stop eating as well and end up in the hospital alongside Danny. Though they are hooked up to heart monitors and IVs, they don’t appear to have feeding tubes, which seems like it might be the first order of business when you have a group of people literally starving to death. Also, the film is book-ended by a voiceover from Susan, which doesn’t add much overall and seems like a hold-over from its literary roots (though it does give the film a killer last line).
“The Box” is a very dour, emotionally trying film, so it’s a relief that its follow-up is something more light-hearted. “The Birthday Party” is directed by Annie Clark, better known as the musician St. Vincent. Clark said she was surprised when she was asked to direct a segment for the film, as 1) She had never directed before, and 2) she can’t watch horror movies (she gets scared too easily). These are two pretty big sticking points, and it does make one wonder why the creators sought out St. Vincent rather than one of the many female directors already working in film (many of whom have made horror films or at least like/love the genre).
The result is a film that is dark and funny and often tense, but never scary. Mary is a mother living in a wealthy suburb. As she scrambles to get ready for her daughter’s birthday party, she discovers her husband’s corpse, dead in his study from suicide (even here the film is bloodless, as the husband died of an overdose). Rather than ruin her daughter’s party, Mary struggles to stash her hubby’s body in various locations around the house, trying to keep up a brave face even as guests arrive. Clark says that her inspiration for the film (which she co-wrote with Roxanne Benjamin, a fellow XX director) were the things that horrified her personally: “Personal and public humiliation. Being responsible for children. The subtle ways in which women are indoctrinated to be horrible to one another.” The film does a good job of hitting all these notes, and even gets some affectionate jabs in at the horror genre (it has one of the funniest jump scares I have seen in a long time, perhaps ever). The film has a bright colour palette (which is a relief after the ashen greys used in “The Box”) and lots of great visual jokes (you’ll want to pause and take stock of the kids costumes when they show up for the party). It’s also got Melanie Lynskey as Mary. Lynskey is an amazing character actress who can be an endearing goofball while still coming off as a believable human being. Her kooky but melancholic energy gives the film a beating heart.
Next in line is Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall.” The film features four friends camping out in the desert. When they see some ominous cave paintings, they wonder if maybe their chosen campsite isn’t the best place to park the ol’ RV. They stick it out anyway, and pay for it with their lives when their quietest and least intimidating member becomes possessed and transforms into a werewolf-like monster, dead-set on dismembering the group. All of this is visually stunning, with cinematography that takes full advantage of the desert cliffs’ natural beauty (it’s especially refreshing in contrast to the largely housebound settings of the other films). There's a shot where the perspective is flipped as the monster crawls down the cliff towards its victim, and the reversed angle makes the creature seem all the more otherworldly and inescapable.
The great visuals, however, are let down by a lackluster story. “Don’t Fall” is a fun enough monster mash, but the fact that it’s not much more makes it less memorable than some of the other films in the anthology. This includes the last short film, “Her Only Living Son.” It’s directed by Karyn Kusama, who has directed several studio films such as Aeon Flux (2005) and unfairly maligned Jennifer’s Body (2009). Her most recent full length film, 2015’s The Invitation, is a very tight, tense horror thriller that is well worth seeking out (it is widely available on Netflix). For XX, Kusama created her own mini-sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (1968). What if, instead of sticking around New York to give birth to her devil spawn, Rosemary ran away? Cora, as Rosemary goes by these days, has spent the last eighteen years on the run, trying to raise her son, Andy, as best she can. But it’s tough being a single parent, especially when your child is the son of the devil. As Andy’s eighteenth birthday approaches, Cora starts to become more and more aware of her son's dark side and how little influence she actually has over him.
It’s been forty-nine years since Rosemary’s Baby came out, and since then there have been countless stories of demon babies and bad seeds. “Her Only Living Son” is a perfectly serviceable installment in the evil kiddies canon, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. In particular, it hits a lot of the same beats that Lyn Ramsey’s 2011 film We Need to Talk about Kevin struck, but Kusama’s short film simply doesn’t hit as hard.
This is too bad, because there are some neat concepts here. As the story goes on it becomes apparent that everyone in Cora’s life, from her son’s high school principal to the cute mailman, are actually part of a satanic cult that have been keeping tabs on Cora and Andy. If developed a little more this could have been a great metaphor for how, even after escaping an abusive relationship, women still have to deal with a patriarchal society that would side with their abuser. One nice touch is Cora’s reaction to the devil coming to claim Andy now that he’s all grown up. After being a long-suffering martyr for most of the film, Cora loses her patience and reminds Andy that she was the one who looked after him all this time, not his father, and that Satan can’t just expect to waltz back into her son’s life now that all the heavy lifting is over. Though it’s played straight here in the film, painting the devil as a negligent, absentee father is actually pretty funny and humanizes Cora and Andy’s supernatural tale.
It’s a little frustrating that three of the four short films center on mothers. Obviously there are many different ways to approach this theme (even here each of the three films are vastly different) but it feels so limiting for motherhood to be synonymous with womanhood. Indeed, the house as the focal point in women’s lives is a repeating theme in the anthology. This wasn't a planned theme, as the project’s directors for the most part worked independently of each other; but even the anthology’s connective tissue echoes the motif. In between each short film is an animated sequence from animator Sofia Carrillo. Her stop-motion segments center around a rotted old dollhouse making its way through the halls of a similarly rundown building. Each segment loosely pays homage to themes in the short films they preclude, but indirectly and with a dream-like logic. The imagery in the animated sequences are haunting and beautiful. One of my favourite moments in the whole film is when we see inside the dollhouse for the first time: Instead of painstakingly constructed miniature furnishings, the insides of the dollhouse are soft and fleshy, organic rather than constructed.
It’s also noteworthy, though, that it’s not so much motherhood on display here but white motherhood. Though XX features a few women of colour behind the camera (Karyn Kusama is biracial and Sofia Carrillo is Latina) it doesn’t translate to people of colour onscreen. This feels like a real missed opportunity and a sad lack of intersectionality. Get Out did an amazing job this year of using the horror genre to explore race relations; even if none of the directors wanted to go that route they could have followed the example set in the recent horror film It Comes at Night, which owes its strong cast to colour-blind casting (to be fair, “The Birthday Party” does do something like this by featuring a mixed-race family). There’s also the title. XX looks good on a poster, but it also seems needlessly gender-essentialist, reducing the idea of women down to a couple of chromosomes. What if a transwoman filmmaker wanted to join in? Would female filmmakers like the Wachowskis be welcome despite having XY chromosomes? These are all issues that I hope are examined in a sequel, and I really hope there is a sequel. The short films here might not be perfect, but they are imperfect gems with lots to marvel over.