The mere conception of a horror anthology film with all of its short-form segments written, produced, and directed by women (and three of them from the point-of-view of a mother) is an exceedingly exciting achievement. Better late than never, huh? With there being something of a renaissance for horror anthologies in the indie world, it’s about time we get XX (2017) — titled after the genetic chromosomes required to make up the female gender — even if a few of the filmmakers’ contributions land the setups more than the payoffs. There are four stories here rather than eight (Holidays, 2016) or twenty-six (The ABCs of Death, 2013; ABCs of Death 2, 2014), so that lessens the chances of there being many weak pieces or an erratic whole. Conceptually, XX has the right idea and, half the time, the grim morsels of this distaff sampler are pretty terrific, while the other two entries don’t make a lasting impression in the end.
XX starts strong with “The Box,” arguably one of the better segments, written for the screen and directed by short filmmaker Jovanka Vucokis. Based on a story by Jack Ketchum, this short begins around Christmastime when mother Susan Jacobs (Natalie Brown) is headed back home to the suburbs on a train after a day in the city spent with her two kids, Danny (Peter DaCunha) and Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). Sitting next to the family, there’s an unusual looking man (Michael Dyson) with a red gift-wrapped box on his lap. Danny asks the man what is in the box, and when the man opens it for his eyes only, the boy’s expression deadens. When it comes time to eat dinner at home with their father, Robert (Jonathan Watton), Danny isn’t hungry and he just stops eating. When this behavior has gone on long enough — out of concern by Robert more than Susan — his parents take him to get checked out. The doctor tells the boy that he could die if he stops eating, to which Danny responds with, “So?” With the contents of the box shrewdly kept a mystery to the viewer (Danny only tells his sister and father in a whisper), “The Box” presents a wickedly provocative idea with sinister insinuations. Vucokis spins Ketchum’s yarn on an uphill climb of unease and ambiguity with chilling control and then delivers a hopelessly bleak final punch.
Next up is a tonally different beast with “The Birthday Party,” the auspicious directorial debut of Annie Clark, who’s better known as musician St. Vincent. Scrambling around finishing up preparations for her daughter’s seventh birthday party, Mary (Melanie Lynskey) remains in her robe. She’s startled by dressed-all-in-black nanny Carla (Sheila Vand of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014), who insists Mary’s husband David (Seth Duhame) is back home early from his work trip. When Mary is shocked to find David slumped in his office chair, she has to act quickly, finding the proper place for the stiff body before the party starts. Playing more as a burnt-black-as-coffee farce than straight-up horror, the segment plays like a wonkier “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a surreal, off-center style and close-call tension. As a housewife keeping up appearances and then dealing with her emotions later, Melanie Lynskey holds it all together in an amusingly idiosyncratic turn. The situation is absurd and blackly comic at the same time—and indie auteur John Swanberg has a funny cameo as a rapping panda with a terrible haircut—before Clark caps it off with an indelible punchline.
Any thematic cohesion that binds the foursome is lost with the most traditional and least developed horror entry in “Don’t Fall,” written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, 2016), who also co-wrote “The Birthday Party.” Brother Paul (Casey Adams) and sister Gretchen (Breeda Wool), along with friends Jess (Angela Trimbur) and Jay (Morgan Krantz), go hiking through the mountains, only to stumble upon an ancient marking on a rock that one of them touches. The jumpy, habitually teased member of the group becomes cursed and terrorizes the others at their campsite. The pullback to reveal the title of “Don’t Fall” in dauntingly red font grabs one’s attention, as does the gory, freaky climax when Gretchen transforms into the nasty, screechy beast. Unfortunately, this campfire slasher short is over just as it’s getting started, leaving the audience on a deflated note. Benjamin’s filmmaking is too assured to completely dismiss it, but it is the least satisfying of the four.
Writer-director Karyn Kusama (of the masterful slow-burn The Invitation, 2016) wraps it all up with “Her Only Living Son,” a disturbing play on what might happen to Rosemary Woodhouse if she did keep her baby 18 years later, along with a twisted dash of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Loving single mother Cora (Christina Kirk) has been hiding from the father of son Andy (Kyle Allen), who’s turning 18 and thinks Dad is a Hollywood playboy. She already knows her son has violent tendencies, but Cora learns more and more people are trying to protect Andy when brought into the Principal’s office with an angry mother of a student who has had her fingernails torn off by Andy. You see, Andy isn’t like the other kids. Christina Kirk gives 100% as the fragile Cora, who loves her special boy, no matter what, and brings vital pathos to the end of this unsettling mother-son story. Perhaps as a feature, “Her Only Living Son” would earn its gut-punch ending even more but, as is, it concludes as a bit of a letdown.
Though XX is flooded with creative resourcefulness, one can’t help but imagine what could have been had we spent even more time within each individual narrative. As is the case with any compilation of shorts, the quality can be inconsistent, and the omnibus structure is destined to have a clunker in the bunch. Here, even the weakest one is never outright bad, but “Don’t Fall” is disposable, albeit not without skill. “The Box” reigns as the most unshakable and “The Birthday Party” is memorable for being so different from the rest. “Her Only Living Son” is ultimately hurt by its own brevity. Moreover, each tale is bookended by strange, playfully macabre stop-motion animation, designed by Sofia Carrillo, that involves gothic walking dollhouses and creepy doll faces. It has nothing to do with anything really, but considering so many horror anthologies can’t seem to get the connective tissue right anyway, this one sure looks cool and has been crafted with time and care. Regardless that it’s easier to both admire and embrace the intent more than the uneven execution, XX still showcases voices in horror that don’t get heard nearly enough. Give a sequel the green light, please.
XX is currently showing in selected theaters and is available on Amazon Video and iTunes.
Three stars out of five.