Horror anthologies can be a tough feat to pull off, especially when you’re trying to pull together different filmmakers’ visions into one cohesive experience. That being said, XX, which recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, succeeds in delivering four wildly distinct stories from several female directors, featuring the talents of Jovanka Vuckovic, Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), and Roxanne Benjamin. Beyond just its historical significance, XX stands out as one of the more successful anthologies we’ve seen as of late, regardless of the gender of its directors.
XX starts off with Vuckovic’s contribution, The Box, which is based on a story of the same name by acclaimed author Jack Ketchum. In the segment, we follow Susan (Natalie Brown), a mother who watches helplessly as an unknown force literally consumes her family after her son, Danny (Peter DaCunha), takes a peek inside a mysterious box held by an equally mysterious man (Michael Dyson) who they cross paths with on the subway one day. It’s evident that whatever is inside the box has some kind of horrific hold on her child, but as Danny begins to refuse eating and won’t let his mother in on the secret, she’s unable to help her child break out of the spell he’s under, which also begins to affect her husband (Jonathan Watton) and Susan’s daughter, Jenny (Peyton Kennedy).
We watch as Susan’s entire family slips away from her grasp in The Box, and Vuckovic does a fantastic job of setting a tone of unease and uncertainty that lingers from the very beginning until the final frame. An allegory for the helplessness that can plague parents, even when they think they can control things or keep their families safe, the finale of The Box may feel a little underwhelming because Vuckovic doesn’t offer up any solid answers about the unknown forces at play, but honestly, I felt like not knowing was so much more unsettling than any real truths that could have possibly been revealed through any additional exposition.
The next segment in XX is Clark’s The Birthday Party, the darkly comedic tale of Mary (Melanie Lynskey), a mother who will stop at nothing to throw the perfect birthday party for her daughter, Lucy (Sanai Victoria), even if it means hiding the corpse of her husband who died at some point in the evening. Written by Benjamin (who pulls double duty on XX), The Birthday Party is so weirdly surreal at times that you can’t help but think that ’90s Tim Burton would beam with pride at Clark’s efforts here. My biggest quibble with this segment in particular is that I don’t really feel like there’s a fully fleshed-out story to be found in The Birthday Party. However, the absurdity of the situation, compounded with Lynskey’s stellar performance, still makes for a fun experiment in abstract storytelling.
Benjamin is in the director’s chair for XX’s next story, Don’t Fall, which is easily the most horrific tale of the anthology. The story follows a group of friends (Breeda Wool, Angela Trimbur, Casey Adams, Morgan Krantz) camping out in a remote mountain area of the desert. They get more than they bargained for when they stumble across ancient petroglyphs featuring a monstrous omen for those who dare enter the terrain. As night falls, Wool’s character Gretchen begins to suspect their group isn’t alone, and that’s when Benjamin unleashes hell in Don’t Fall, making for XX’s most gruesome and horror-fueled offering.
Don’t Fall has some great performances in it, but its biggest impact comes from the violent ferocity of its last five minutes, in which Benjamin goes for broke. There are some amazing effects in Don’t Fall that really heighten the terror, and Benjamin also concocts a great jump scare that actually startled me (which doesn’t happen too often these days), so I must tip my hat to her efforts. As a short film, Don’t Fall is pretty darned good, but I’d love to see a feature version of this story from Benjamin, as there’s a really cool mythology she could explore even further if given the time and resources.
XX concludes with Kusama’s segment, Her Only Living Son, which can best be surmised as an unofficial Rosemary’s Baby sequel. The short follows Cora (Christina Kirk), a mother who has been on the run with her son, Andy (Kyle Allen), after learning that her (now) ex-husband put them both at risk back when Andy was first conceived. While we can see pretty early on just where Her Only Living Son is going story-wise, Kusama delivers the hell out of her contribution to XX, and Kirk’s performance makes for something truly special to behold (oh, and Mike Doyle as Cora’s creepy mailman nearly steals the show, too, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him).
Overall, XX confidently proves that while horror may often feel like a “boys’ club,” there are a lot of incredibly talented and creative female filmmakers out there who can deliver the genre goods, too. The movie is a truly admirable effort for all involved, including Sofìa Carrillo, who created the stop-motion wraparound that feels like a Tool video by way of The Dresden Dolls. I’m so glad these women were able to come together to create an anthology that stands out from many of its recent peers.
Movie Score: 3.5/5