Four talented female writer-directors and one animator contribute segments to horror anthology XX, all decidedly female-centric stories driven by powerful female performances. That said, absolutely anyone who prefers the unsettling creep of dread to predictable jump scares will enjoy this one.
Three of the four shorts revolve around motherhood, though that feels like more of a coincidence than a coordinated effort, given the otherwise divergent themes. In Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box, based on an original story by Jack Ketchum (The Woman), a mom (Natalie Brown of The Strain and Channel Zero: Candle Cove) hustles her two kids onto the train after some NYC Christmas shopping. They end up sitting next to a man holding a brightly-wrapped present with something very sinister inside.
We know this parcel means doom, but the way the plot unfolds is much more low-key than expected, especially after we’re prepped for another type of story entirely after we see the family watching Night of the Living Dead together. Rather, The Box is more about one mother’s multi-layered nightmare—the fear that something bad will happen to her children (and her spouse, and her perfect middle-class life), and the deeper terror that she won’t feel the right things or react the right way when confronted with the ultimate worst-case scenario. The fact that The Box ends without any real resolve might frustrate some viewers, but a tidy conclusion would detract from all the carefully wrought ambiguity that comes before.
The next mom in XX appears in the film’s standout segment, The Birthday Party, which is actually more of a black comedy, though it does mine a certain amount of unease from its affluent suburban setting. Directed by Annie Clark (a.k.a. musician St. Vincent), and co-written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin, The Birthday Party begins as a housewife (Melanie Lynskey)—already feeling the psychic pressures of throwing her kid the best birthday bash on the block—realizes her husband has died just moments before the guests are set to arrive. Grief can come later; first, she’s gotta figure out what to do with the corpse while also wrangling hyper kids, nosy neighbors, and a snooty housekeeper. A gorgeous candy-colored palette, some surreal background details (one of the costumed party guests is dressed as a toilet), and Lynskey’s wonderfully weary, “oh-fuck-what-now” performance all elevate The Birthday Party from silly to artful.
If The Birthday Party is kind of an odd woman out in XX, since it’s not exactly horror, Benjamin’s own segment as writer-director adds some balance to the scale. Don’t Fall is a good old-fashioned journey through terror in the wilderness, with some excellently gross creature effects to boot. It’s couched in a lesson about not teasing the fraidy-cat in your social group—because you never know when, or how, she’ll eventually get her revenge. It could look a lot like this:
XX’s final segment, writer-director Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, is a fitting bookend for The Box. Christina Kirk (Powerless) plays a mousy mother whose teenage son (Kyle Allen of The Path) has matured into a surly asshole with a penchant for cruel violence, a newfound need to frequently trim the claw-like toenails on his beastly feet, and some raging questions about his mysterious origins.
This latest horror effort from Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) plays like Rosemary’s Baby meets We Need to Talk About Kevin, and of all the segments in XX, it’s the one that feels the most hemmed in by being a short. That doesn’t necessarily lessen its ultimate impact, but it feels a bit rushed at times. The friendly mail carrier’s transformation from flirt to ranting zealot, for instance, would’ve been way freakier as a slow build, rather than an abrupt about-face.
(Also worth noting are XX’s creepy misfit-toy interstitials, which were created by animator Sofia Carrillo and help set up each story in skin-crawlingly cute style.)
XX opens in theaters and on VOD on February 17.