As in every other genre, women are underrepresented in the horror film. The anthology film XX, then, is a humble gesture of correction, offering four shorts and a wraparound segment that are all written and directed by women, following female protagonists as they wrestle with exclusion and implicit social standards that may or may not extend to their male counterparts.
The first and best short is Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum story that opens with a tired mother, Susan (Natalie Brown), on a train with her two children, Jenny (Peyton Kennedy) and Danny (Peter DaCunha), after a long day of Christmas shopping in New York City. Danny notices a creepy man sitting with a crimson-wrapped gift in his lap, and asks to see what’s inside. The man obliges, tilting the top of the package just a bit askew as Danny peeks inside and grows quiet. Danny refuses to eat that night, saying that he isn’t hungry, and he continues not to eat, gradually whittling away to nothing. Another night, he whispers something into Jenny’s ear, and she stops eating too. When asked what he saw in the box, Danny says “nothing,” with a sense of existential hopelessness that proves contagious.
The short ingeniously fuses several primal fears associated with the nuclear family: of something being randomly wrong with children, of the child who won’t eat, and of suddenly being locked out of your own family as a guilty outsider. The meals that the children refuse are almost ludicrously appealing, photographed with a satiric suppleness that brings to mind a still life from Better Homes & Gardens: ribs and loaded baked potatoes, roasted chicken and corn on the cob, and so forth. The husband, Robert (Jonathan Watton), makes the meals and is seemingly occupied with no other tasks, so he’s the one who’s first alarmed by the children’s self-starvation, partially because he feels rejected, while Susan is shamed for her more deliberate reaction to the issue. “The Box” touches on an often unacknowledged texture of family life: the way that children can so casually hurt us by so easily wresting away our power. This realization is complemented by a terrifying inexplicability: that a family is destroyed because a boy looked into a box.
Annie Clark’s “The Birthday Party” and Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” are comparatively slight, though they aren’t lacking for bite. Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, has a promising, if somewhat derivative, eye for suburban sprawls that are rife with nosy, conformist neighbors and impersonally alienating spaces with blasts of malevolently stylish color. The filmmaker also has a promising taste for pitch-black slapstick, following a mother (a superb Melanie Lynskey) as she plans a birthday party that suggests Tim Burton by way of John Cheever. Meanwhile, Benjamin seemingly sets about remaking Greg McLean’s listless The Darkness, compressing that film’s hell-bent narrative—revolving around Native American mysticism—down into 10 sharp, relentless minutes. An upside-down shot of a monster crawling down a valley toward an injured victim from a hillside is the stuff of true nightmares.
Finally, Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” makes a persuasive case for a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, following Cora (Christina Kirk) as she grapples with the 18th birthday of her son, Andy (Kyle Allen). As we know, it’s often hard for parents to accept a child’s transition into adulthood, particularly when said child is the spawn of the devil, awaiting their true father’s ascension to Earth so as to assume their proper place in the hierarchy of hell. Kusama, riding high after last year’s richly atmospheric The Invitation, finds an intriguing and poignant subtext in a shopworn premise, utilizing her conceit as a metaphor for absent fathers who feel they can sweep in and reclaim their homes whenever they wish with no regard for the mother’s sacrifice. The surprisingly moving climax—with Cora clinging to Andy tight, talking him down from his oppressive, sexist destiny as hell literally breaks loose—is less reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby than of films like Mildred Pierce and Stella Dallas.
XX utilizes the strength of the horror short: its brevity, which allows a filmmaker to point toward a social fissure and leave it hanging without the pressure of padding a running time with over-explanatory gimmickry. With the exception of “Don’t Fall,” these narratives are preoccupied with motherhood, particularly the way that a father can overshadow a mother without even consciously trying to, suggesting that children’s observation of this state of affairs is the first step to inoculating one into patriarchy. Binding these short films together are a series of elegantly chilling stop-motion pieces by Sofia Carrillo, which involve dolls in various poses of death and resurrection. In this context, their blank eyes connote rage against the machine.