Anthologies are tricky. How do you cram a full story of content into 15-20 minute segments without sacrificing quality? How do you end them well without leaving too much on the plate? XX is the first all female-directed, female-starred horror anthology that tackles these – and many more – problems. Some players are better at it than others, but it’s almost a guarantee with such a varied assortment of creatives involved every viewer can find something to love and appreciate. XX boasts 4 different horror stories by Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, and Karyn Kusama, respectively. Tied together with wonderfully spine-tingling and haunting credits sequences by Sofia Carrillo, this was a package we couldn’t wait to unwrap. Read on for a review of each segment followed by an overall grade.
Segment 1: The Box – written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic
A quality horror movie knows the power of what’s left unseen. While the visceral horror of blood-and-guts is shocking, hidden plot devices are usually far more sinister and reach deeper into the mind. Vuckovic knows this, and she attempts to exploit it in The Box, where a tired mother (Natalie Brown) and her children ride the train home and the family meets a mysterious man holding an even more mysterious box. Once young Danny pesters enough to get a look at what’s inside, the twisted tale begins. Unfortunately, the story is lacking so much it leaves you starving for just a sliver of exposition. The Box could have been a critical look at the suburban nightmare; a microscopic view of an efficiently groomed family surrounded by instagram-worthy flat lays of American dinners serving as social commentary. Instead, it never pushes beyond its own boundaries. One meaningful scene spoke volumes about what motherhood requires, but the characters are never fleshed out to have any real meaning. There was a mildly refreshing attempt at role-reversal within the family, but just switching genders and relying on stale stereotypes wasn’t enough to make a lasting impression. Combined with it’s total non-ending, The Box is a forgettable addition to an anthology that starts weak but ends boldly.
Segment 2: The Birthday Party – written and directed by Annie Clark
Clark (St. Vincent) bursts from her musical career to bring us The Birthday Party as her directorial debut. Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures, The Intervention) stars as Mary, a nattering, nervous wife throwing a birthday party for her daughter that goes terribly awry. So does this segment. Being familiar with Clark’s music, it’s unsurprising to see such a stylized set. Colours pop, everything is smooth and bright and everyone’s hair is strange, like a muted Hunger Games stage play. Rather than adding any atmosphere, it only serves to distract from its watery thin plot. It seems Mary’s husband has returned from his business trip early, but he’s not feeling like himself. Lynskey is admirable as a woman trying to hold it all together and deny her own neuroses. Her anxious tidying reflects the secrets she’s hiding inside, and I desperately wished we knew a single one of them. Instead, it relies on creepy music and vague voyeur tension to illicit any sense of foreboding, of which there is very little. This segment also boasts Lindsay Burdge, known from The Invitation and Lace Crater, a face that’s welcome to the horror genre and who I’d love to see more of. Ultimately The Birthday Party succeeds more at being a black comedy than a horror short and fails to keep attention even for its short run time.
Segment 3: Don’t Fall – written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin
On this chapter, things are looking up, way up, to a group of friends on a camping and hiking trip in some unnamed wilderness: two guys, two girls, an RV and some weed. Already you can feel the comforting horror tropes gathering around, and after the first two segments of XX, they are so welcome. Don’t Fall is the most generic horror of the bunch, but it’s also the scariest and one of the best. Notable names include Angela Trimbur (Trash Fire, The Final Girls) and Breeda Wool (UnREAL) who both give it their all in short roles. After goofing around together, the group discovers a sort of cave painting that maybe hints at an ancient race or curse upon the land. Gretchen (Wool) is the wet blanket of the bunch, afraid of everything and at the mercy of the others who love to tease. While it’s unclear how it happens, Don’t Fall turns towards some serious transformation body horror that gets gleefully gory. Great makeup and effects paired with back-bending performances makes this the segment that will have you looking over your shoulder on your walk to the outhouse next time you’re camping. It’s the first great showing of the anthology and puts Benjamin (known already for her work in Southbound and V/H/S) even more firmly on the radar for what she’s working on next.
Segment 4: Her Only Living Son – written and directed by Karyn Kusama
Kusama is one of the strongest horror directors out there and she flexes those muscles in her XX contribution Her Only Living Son. Like the one before, this segment is a bold showing of writing and directorial talent. Kusama wowed us in 2015 with The Invitation and has an arsenal of quality horror under her belt. That’s why it’s absolutely no surprise that her segment is a hit. Once again, Kusama explores motherhood with her depiction of a single mother (Christina Kirk) who’s way too attached to her son. This is more than just a story of a helicopter parent. Andy (Kyle Allen) is a brooding monster of a teen with sinister tendencies. We see this immediately through questionable treatment of the family dog and his gross decision to eat a bloody egg, but it escalates much further than that. Her Only Living Son takes a bit of an imaginary view of what Rosemary’s life might have been like after Polanski’s famous shot of her gentle hand rocking the cradle in 1968. It certainly boasts the best performances from everyone involved; pathetic desperation and sick rapture on the empty smiling faces of those caught in the whirlwind of this small family’s dirty little secrets. A bit of a quizzical ending causes it to falter, but Kusama has already proven herself – I’d watch 90 minutes on this segment alone.
Overall: There is no better time for female-led, created, and directed horror. Though XX generally underwhelms, there are sparks within that hint at a powerful ignition of feminine perspective in the genre. A wobbly step, but we’re looking forward to what it will bring: more faces and names behind this thrilling and meaningful genre.
Total Grade: C+
Featured Image: Magnet Releasing