In an effort to expand on the current wave of female-directed horror breakthroughs—such as Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, and Julia Ducournau’s Raw—the makers of XX wanted to assemble the first horror anthology (like the recent V/H/S films) directed entirely by women.
To do this, the producers of XX put together a very impressive roster of filmmakers. Roxanne Benjamin produced the first two V/H/S films and also directed a short for Southbound, a recent indie horror anthology. Jovanka Vuckovic directed the award winning horror short, The Captured Bird. Annie Clark, better known as the musician St. Vincent, makes her directorial debut for this project. The roster of directors is rounded out by the aforementioned Karyn Kusama. Between segments, we’re treated to some truly creepy interstitial stop-motion animated work from Mexican filmmaker Sofia Carrillo.
Like most horror anthologies, it’s tough to judge XX as a single work, especially since the four main shorts weren’t made to fit together or even with knowledge by the other filmmakers of what the subjects or horror styles would be. That being said, some interesting similarities and contrasts jump out. One of the segments is a straight-up monster movie, but three of the four films are about family, in particular mothers attempting to protect their children from great harm. But each of the mother-child entries takes such a profoundly different approach to its material that they don’t really resemble each other at all.
First up is Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” which is based on the Jack Ketchum story of a neglectful father. But Vuckovic has switched the gender of her lead character, making Natalie Brown’s (“The Strain”) character, Susan, a working mother who fails to protect her kids. This holds especially true on a subway ride home where her son gets a peek inside a strange, gift-wrapped box held by a stranger. That glimpse immediately makes the son lose his appetite from that day forward. Each night at dinner becomes more and more of a struggle, and when the boy tells his sister what was in the box, she refuses to eat as well, with the parents helpless to protect their children from withering away. The point of this tense episode is to expose Susan’s guilt for being ambivalent towards motherhood and to watch her pristine life crumble around her, culminating in a particularly horrific Christmas morning feast. “The Box” is probably my favorite segment of XX, and I’m especially excited to see what Vuckovic does in a feature setting because her ability to build tension and generally creep us out is exceptional and shows tremendous confidence.
Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party” is just barely horror. Instead, she’s constructed a colorful, darkly whimsical piece with a distinctly ’60s European quality. Melanie Lynskey plays Mary, who is scurrying to ready her home for her daughter’s 7th birthday party. Just before she’s ready to throw open the doors to visitors, she finds her husband dead in his office. Rather than cancel the party and ruin her spoiled daughter’s day, she attempt to hide the corpse, which proves difficult given the busy-bodies around her home, especially her housekeeper (Sheila Vand) and neighbor (Lindsay Burdge). Not unlike “The Box,” the real fear generated is inside Mary’s head, with anxiety stemming from wanting to appear to be the perfect parent to those in attendance. Naturally, it all goes to hell in an explosion of mental and actual disaster. Again, it’s not especially scary, but it is fun to look at. And if all else fails for you, there’s a score by St. Vincent to keep you happy.
Weirdly, the least effective work as a short, Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” (the aforementioned monster movie), is the one segment I’d like to see expanded into a feature, because I think it would work better at around 80 minutes, with its stock characters of four college student gone camping more given room to get fleshed out and made more human. The campers find strange etchings on the rocks they’re climbing, and before you can say “Boo!”, they are being terrorized by a nasty, toothy creature that has a habit of jumping out of the darkness. It ain’t original, but it made me jump a whole bunch of times.
I loved that Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” dives headfirst into the Son of Satan motif, wondering aloud what would a mother (Christina Kirk) do when such a child turned 18. It’s easy to imagine this being a continuation of sorts to The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, as Cora is on the verge of full-blown panic as the signs are all around her that her son Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to realize his full demonic potential and be taken from her. There are protective agents of evil all around Andy, but none of them stand a chance against a mother’s protective intuition. Kusama mines the mother-son angle for all its worth, and it genuinely works. Again, it’s not especially scary, but it’s an interesting take on a familiar subgenre in horror films.
Most of the chapters in XX are too short to give its characters the kind of attention they deserve, but these directors find ways of engaging us nevertheless. And with Carillo’s creepy Brothers Quay-inspired animation holding it all together, this is an admirable, mostly enjoyable success that I hope inspires a franchise.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. You can also rent it digitally on most major streaming platforms.