XX is one of the few (possibly the only) horror anthologies written and directed by female filmmakers and focusing on female protagonists. The film has four distinct stories, each approximately 20 minutes in length. While the each of the shorts centers on a woman, there is virtually no other thematic connection between them (though 3 out of the 4 shorts do focus on women taking care of their children to one degree or another). There are brief stop-motion sequences between each short, showing bizarre dolls and objects moving around an old house, but these feel rather pointless, and do nothing to provide any real link between the stories. While the shorts are all visually well-crafted and of high production value, the stories are somewhat hit-and-miss, and frequently lack any effective horrific elements.
The first film in XX is called The Box. Written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, The Box tells the story of a young boy, Danny, who, when riding the train with his mother Susan (Natalie Brown), looks into a box that a stranger is holding. He refuses to tell anyone what is in the box, but the sight of it causes him to no longer have any desire to eat. When Danny starts losing weight, Susan and her husband, Robert, become increasingly worried. The situation soon spirals out of control, leaving Susan to obsess over what was in the box.Though The Box sets up an interesting premise, it fails to craft a cohesive story, and, with the exception of one dream sequence involving graphic cannabilism, there is very little in The Box that is overtly horrific. It is certainly entertaining, as the search for the box’s contents becomes increasingly more dire, but many viewers will find the supernatural elements of the story to be a little confusing, and the ending somewhat disappointing.
The second film is entitled The Birthday Party, and is written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark (who also directed it). This story is more simple and straightforward than the first short, and doesn’t involve any kind of supernatural elements. In fact, it doesn’t contain any horrific elements either, as it functions much more ably as a comedy short than a horror one. In The Birthday Party, a stressed-out housewife, Mary, attempts to prepare everything for her daughter’s birthday party, only to discover her husband’s dead body in his office. Mary spends the remainder of the film attempting to hide the body from nosy neighbors, her nanny, and especially her daughter, so as not to ruin the festivities. While this is a funny little short, and Melanie Lynsey gives a fantastic performance as Mary, there is nothing particularly horrific about The Birthday Party.
The third film in the anthology is Don’t Fall, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin. Don’t Fall is much more of a traditional horror film, borrowing from the traditions of many monster movies before it. The story follows a group of four friends who drive their camper into the desert to have a fun outing in nature. While searching the surrounding area, they find a cave painting of a demonic spirit. Later that night, Gretchen, who is afraid of heights, wanders out on her own and is attacked by the very same creature from the painting. She soon transforms into a monster, and begins hunting the other members of the group. Though there is nothing spectacular about Don’t Fall (and the name is a little misleading), it works well as a straight-forward, by the book horror film. It doesn’t take any real risks or tell a story that hasn’t been told before, but it is both adequately entertaining and frightening.
The final film of XX is Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusama. This short focuses on Cora (Christina Kirk), a single mother who struggles to control her rebellious son, Andy (Kyle Allen). We come to find out that there is something innately evil in Andy. His mother finds a dead animal that he has nailed to a tree, and the mother of another student at Andy’s school claims that Andy ripped her daughter’s fingernails off. Andy frequently comes back late at night covered in blood, and refuses to tell Cora what has happened. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Cora knows, to a certain extent, the secret behind Andy’s behavior, and she must protect him at all costs. Her Only Living Son is another well-told story, and is certainly more horrific than The Birthday Party, but it still does not frighten in the way that a horror film should. It feels more like an intimate portrait of a mother loving her son unconditionally, despite the burden of his evil nature. And while it is generally a well-made and enjoyable short, some might be disappointed with the ending.
As a whole, XX is superior to most horror anthologies. Some of them are overly ambitious (The ABC’s of Horror), while others are frightening, but technically unimpressive (V/H/S). XX doesn’t bite off more than it can chew with just 4 shorts, and they are all expertly produced. However, it really suffers from a lack of genuine scares. And, while the shorts are not thematically linked, it is a little disappointing that the narratives put so much emphasis on women functioning only as housewives and mothers. All in all, XX is certainly worth a watch, as it is entertaining and showcases the talents of various women in the film industry, but don’t expect to see any real scares in these shorts.
Rating: ★★½ out of 5
XX is available to stream on Netflix or purchase on Amazon here.