Posted by Holly
Director: Karyn Kusama, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic, Sofia Carrillo
Women have been making waves in horror more than ever recently, but it’s fair to say that their presence in a directing or writing capacity is still a distinct minority. It’s a discrepancy that has been noticed, and the idea of an all female-helmed anthology film is perhaps a way to try and bridge that gap. By promoting the work of women who are eager to be part of what is traditionally a boys club maybe the genre will open itself up to a richer variety in storytellers. XX bills itself on this premise alone, without any other connecting themes – a dangerous route to take, for many reasons. And while XX is only moderately successful as an anthology film, it’s an encouraging step forward for the genre itself.
XX presents four stories: The Box, which follows a mother’s struggle after a strange encounter on the subway leaves her son withdrawn and refusing food. The Birthday Party begins with a woman discovering a tragedy and facing the choice between dealing with the fallout of the situation or ensuring a successful birthday party for her daughter. Don’t Fall sees four friends off on a camping trip in the mountains, unaware of what ancient evils they are about to uncover. Finally, Her Only Living Son focuses on a mother struggling with the approach of her son’s eighteenth birthday – not only with accepting that he’s becoming an adult, but to understand exactly what it is that he’s grown up to become.
The film leads off with The Box, which is perhaps one of the strongest pieces in the film. While the story itself may tread familiar territory – it’s an adaptation of a short story by Jack Ketchum – the events of the film are less interesting, perhaps, than the tone and point of view used to tell them. While everything that is going on is happening distinctly to the young boy, the mystery of the story hinges on things being witnessed from an outside perspective. In this case, the point of view is of his mother Susan, and as the story progresses, it becomes more apparent that the feeling of distance and isolation in the narrative is an extension of this. It is clear from the early signs of her son’s distress that Susan and her husband have differing ideas on how to handle it, Susan opting for a more hands-off approach, assuming her son will soon tire of his pickiness. She is immediately chastized by her husband for not taking the situation seriously enough, a conversation that echoes itself several times throughout the film’s run.
The choice to focus on a mother and her apparent difficulty in connecting with her family really drives home some of the most interesting elements of this short. There is often an expectation of connectedness that comes with motherhood, of children as an extension of the self and the willingness to give of yourself to them. When Danny is confiding in his father about what was in the box, Susan is standing right outside the door – she could choose to join them, but she seems frozen in place, on the outside looking in at her family as they wither away. Following this, she has a dream in which her family slices off pieces of her flesh and eats them in graphic detail, and Susan simply smiles contentedly as it happens, finally able to give her family the sustenance they need – finally able to give herself to them fully. Susan’s guilt at the end of the story isn’t necessarily because she felt helpless to save them, but rather because she knew that she had been unwilling to join them, too willing to sate her own hunger, willing to put her own needs first.
The Birthday Party is almost completely different, tonally, from The Box. This falls far more into the comedy-horror category, and even with the shared idea of coping with familial tragedy, opts for refuge in audacity. Horrible things happen, but the way that they play out is so over the top that it’s almost impossible not to laugh at them. The humor of the story does not bury its more disconcerting elements, however. There is a surrealistic quality to the events that play out that feel as though you are in a waking nightmare, watching terrible things happen but unable to stop them. Perhaps it is because of this surreal quality that it feels as though you are kept at arm’s length from the characters; Mary is restrained throughout, out of necessity it seems, but aside from her overwhelming desire to save face, even at the expense of dealing with significant emotional turmoil, there is little learned about her. It’s impossible to surmise what the relationship between Mary and her husband might have been, their dynamic as a family with their daughter, leaving some of the ideas feeling only half formed.
One of the strengths of this segment is the way it projects a sinister feeling onto mundane everyday events; in this way, it illustrates how the right circumstances can make anything terrifying, including preparation for a little girl’s birthday party. The use of music to underscore the main character’s state of mind is well done, and a focus that makes a lot of sense when realizing that Annie Clark (of St. Vincent fame) is the director of this piece. That, and the genuinely funny punchline delivered at the end when the whole title of the segment is revealed are two things that make this a really memorable film.
The third segment, titled Don’t Fall, is, unfortunately, the weak link of the collection, and even on its own merits isn’t particularly interesting or noteworthy. It takes a relatively generic idea (a group of friends camping in the wilderness and stumbling upon something seemingly ancient) and takes it to its logical conclusion, with no reinvention or creative spin on it. What’s there is fine enough, it has some decent creature effects and it’s watchable, but it’s simply not engaging on a more meaningful level. There is no character development, and very little reason given to root for any of the characters to survive. One thing worth noticing while watching it is perhaps the small moments of respect paid to its female characters compared to other stories in a similar vein. So often a film will use an opportunity to have a female character undress as a way to sexualize her fear and vulnerability – in Don’t Fall, when Jess removes her shirt in order to tie up her injured leg, the shot emphasizes the pain of her injury instead of her bared skin.
Rounding out the collection is what feels like the most interesting and original of the four stories, Her Only Living Son. In some respect, it feels like a spiritual sequel to films like Rosemary’s Baby, asking the question about what happens to a woman after she’s forced to carry and give birth to something evil. In the case of this story, the terror doesn’t end once she’s had the baby, not even after she’s fled the situation that caused it. Eighteen years after the birth of this child and her terror only progresses, heightening as she begins to see her son take on more of his father’s characteristics. There’s a chilling fear that doesn’t even need to be linked to the supernatural here; despite all of Cora’s best efforts, all of her sacrifices and putting all of herself into loving her son, she still has no control over whether or not he turns out to be a monster, exactly like the man who fathered him.
There isn’t a traditional wraparound story connecting these films, but there is a sparse framing device that involves a walking dollhouse, shot in an animated stop motion style vaguely reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork, and while it offers little in the way of story, many anthology wraparounds are disappointing in that regard anyway. It provides a perfect palate cleanser between each story and is often quite unnerving in its imagery even in its sweeter moments.
One thing that was apparent after watching this film is that the presented idea of women’s perspective in horror felt somewhat narrow. Three out of the four films had their primary character be a mother dealing with an issue regarding their child. While this is obviously a valid idea to explore, and great horror films have come of it, the woman-as-mother theme felt a bit overrepresented where there might have been more variety. Not all stories about women need to deal with issues that relate to women exclusively. There is also the question of quality – the films are certainly uneven in quality, making for a less than ideal collection. Even taking each of the films on their own, each one is good and certainly worth watching, but none in particular are great, leaving a bit of a void while viewing.
This collection is certainly flawed, and while that is to be expected from an anthology film, it’s especially frustrating in this instance. Because of XX being billed as a female fronted collection, it will be held up as the representation of female voices in horror for better or worse. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but it functions much better as an introduction to more feminine voices in horror, something that should be built upon with future collections similar to this, greater inclusion of women in regular anthology films, and working in the forefront on more feature films.
Rating: 3 out of 5. A worthwhile watch, but far from perfect.
Scariness level: More eerie and atmospheric than terrifying in most cases. The first and last stories are the ones that may stay with you the longest, with fears that are more emotional and philosophical portrayed.
Violence level: The first two are relatively bloodless (save for one dream sequence), though Don’t Fall provides a bit of gore to make up for it. Her Only Living Son has a brutal and violent ending and some unsavory implications.
Bechdel test: All of them technically pass, or come very close. Her Only Living Son is the most questionable, since the discussion she has with the school administrator and another mother involves the actions her son took.
Mako Mori test: Oddly, I think Don’t Fall is the only one that obviously passes this. The Birthday Party may if you consider Mary’s motivations to be with regard to her daughter, rather than her husband.