XX can’t transcend the status of novelty.
Historically underrepresented in the director’s chair, women are particularly scarce at the helm of horror flicks. Complete with a not-so-subtle chromosomal title, the anthology XX takes a step toward remedying that, featuring four shorts written and directed by four women and focusing on stories where women find themselves at the center of the horror. Motherhood plays a key role in three of these tales, as it frequently has in the horror genre, though the terror manifests in far different ways in each. Yet due to an uneven tone, frequent implausible elements and an overreliance on show-stopping climaxes over nuance, the film never quite captivates and misses the opportunity to delve more deeply into the anxieties it exploits only at a surface level.
XX opens with its creepiest but, by far, least satisfying entry, Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box.” While riding on the subway, a boy (Peter DaCunha) asks to look inside a gift box held by a peculiar man with a glass eye (Michael Dyson). Upon doing so, the boy grows eerily quiet and subsequently refuses to eat the preposterously resplendent foods served at each family dinner. In fact, he’s stopped eating altogether, because, as he puts it, he’s simply not hungry. His father (Jonathan Watton) grows increasingly concerned, though his mother (Natalie Brown) oddly seems to take it in stride. Soon, the boy whispers into the ears of his sister (Peyton Kennedy) and father, and they inexplicably join him in voluntary starvation, isolating the mother. While the lack of specificity about the contents of the box (the boy says he saw “nothing”) and the contagiousness of whispered secrets make for an unsettling experience, the mother’s strange lack of concern, and the fact that medical professionals seem to have forgotten about the existence of IVs and feeding tubes, ultimately makes this one difficult to swallow.
The same can be said for “The Birthday Party,” the directorial debut of musician Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). When Mary (Melanie Lynskey) finds her husband dead by misadventure in the family home, she makes the bizarre decision to hide his body in plain sight in an attempt to ensure that her daughter’s birthday party goes off without a hitch. Needless to say, this does not end well. While Lynskey turns in a strong performance, her character’s actions don’t make a lot of sense and what comes across as a stab at social commentary ends up falling flat.
Elsewhere, more seasoned horror directors take the reins, with Roxanne Benjamin (producer of the V/H/S franchise and co-director of the stellar Southbound horror anthology) and Karyn Kusama (fresh off the claustrophobic surprise hit horror feature The Invitation) directing the final two installments. Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” adds some creature horror to the mix, as a woman (Breeda Wool) on a camping trip with friends falls victim to a curse of some ancient Native American petroglyphs and transforms into a kind of demon spawn. Meanwhile, Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” takes that idea far more literally as a young man on the cusp of his 18th birthday (Kyle Allen) begins to understand that he was sired by the devil himself. This final short, which could easily serve as a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, focuses on the boy’s mother (Christina Kirk), who’s spent her life running from the truth and must now come to terms with her son not merely becoming a man, but rather transforming into something inhuman. This final entry is the only short that operates on more than a one-note premise, yet it’s an example of too little, too late. Up until that point, the strange doll-head stop-motion animation interludes between shorts—which give off a Tim Burton meets David Lynch vibe—are the film’s most interesting bits.
There’s a virtue in not revealing too much to the audience, but XX errs in too often using the unknown as a crutch. This becomes especially problematic when characters behave in implausible or confusing ways. By neglecting the exploration of deeper themes and too often insisting on remaining purposely vague, XX can’t transcend the status of novelty.