Following on the heels of recent horror anthologies like Southbound and the V/H/S franchise, XX strings together four shorts written and directed by women, including Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vukovic and Annie Clark, aka indie rock musician St. Vincent. Beyond the chromosomal title, the twisted take on motherhood shared by three installments, and the macabre wraparound and interstitial sequences by Mexican stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo, there’s no binding thread here. The package mixes existential creepiness with black comedy, demonic carnage and a Satan’s spawn scenario, and while it’s uneven — as these combos invariably are — genre enthusiasts looking for a female spin will want to check it out.
Arguably the most startling breakout among women in horror lately has been Australian Jennifer Kent’s wickedly effective The Babadook. Echoes of that film’s terror of maternal failure resurface here, plus there’s a vague kinship between the darker visual flourishes of Kent’s fairy-tale nightmare and Carrillo’s playful segments — dollhouse interludes that suggest a Tim Burton Toy Story. In terms of style and tone, however, the four shorts have little in common.
Girls gone vile.
Vuckovic is up first with The Box, based on a Jack Ketchum story. Natalie Brown from FX’s viral thriller The Strain plays suburban mom Susan, exhausted after a day of dragging the kids all over New York City the week before Christmas. On the train home, her son Danny (Peter DaCunha) gets curious about the shiny red gift-wrapped package being nursed by a funereal-looking fellow commuter. But when the man gives Danny a peek at the contents, the boy goes awfully quiet, thereafter refusing to eat.
While her husband (Jonathan Watton) is alarmed, Susan downplays the situation, her homemaker smile set in place as she continues to pile excessive spreads of food on the table at mealtimes. But some conspiratorial whispering from Danny alters the rest of the family’s behavior, finally forcing Susan to take notice.
Remaining enigmatic to the end, The Box is high on disquieting atmospherics, with fabulous makeup and digital effects used to show Danny growing increasingly gaunt and hollow-eyed. One scene with the suddenly cadaverous family opening Christmas gifts under the tree is an especially subversive tableau, and Vuckovic sustains tension as Susan watches helplessly while the bleak situation unfolds and her perfect life disintegrates.
Next up, the tone shifts into arch middle-class satire in Clark’s The Birthday Party, co-written with XX stablemate Benjamin. There’s a touch of early Edward Albee absurdism in the frantic efforts of Mary (Melanie Lynsky) to throw her adopted daughter Lucy (Sanai Victoria Cunningham) a 7th birthday party that will be the envy of the entire community. That becomes a challenge when Mary finds her husband dead, forcing her to hide the corpse from her daughter, her officious housekeeper Carla (Sheila Vand), and nosy neighbor Madeleine (Lindsay Burdge), who won’t take the hint and keeps blathering on about preteen pilates and exclusive boarding schools.
Clark and her designers create an amusing environment of gauche modernism, filled with ugly statement-art pieces and semi-grotesque caricatures, from Madeleine in her “Real Housewife” war paint and battle uniform, to rail-thin Carla, strutting about in basic black chic severity like a latter-day Mrs. Danvers. In the midst of all this, Lynsky’s Mary, unhinged with anxiety over peer pressure to be the perfect mom, grasps at an outrageous solution that literally kills the party.
The story doesn’t remotely qualify as horror, but it’s the most original of the bunch, with its own mad energy, quirky gallows humor and idiosyncratic visual signature, enlivened by disorienting blasts of Clark’s electropop music.
The third entry, Benjamin’s Don’t Fall, about four college hipsters on a camping trip in the desert, is the scariest of the package, but also the most familiar. While they ramble about over rock formations keeping an eye out for scorpions, Gretchen (Breeda Wool), the straightest of the group, comes upon some ominous-looking markings etched into the stone. No sooner does she start mumbling about sacred sites being violated than out comes the full moon and with it an ancient evil that lays siege to the foursome’s RV, with some solid creature effects and rapid jolts of gnarly mayhem.
Finally, Kusama follows her tense psychothriller The Invitation with a deeper dive into occult horror in Her Only Living Son. Genuflecting to Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, among others, the devil-child tale observes fretful single mother Cora (Christina Kirk) as she bakes a cake for the 18th birthday that will mark the ultimate descent into bestial darkness of her growling, rage-fueled son Andy (Kyle Allen). He’s protected by minions like the mailman (Mike Doyle) and the school principal (Brenda Wehle), but ultimately it’s Cora who keeps him closest, and no mere bloody talons are going to crush her maternal love.
The best thing about this project is that in the genre realm of the final girl, each story features a female protagonist facing unique fears beyond scream-and-die victimhood, in one case becoming the vessel of carnage herself.
However, while it’s worth applauding the women-to-the-fore directive, the usual limits apply. With each short running around 20 minutes, there’s little time to develop character or dramatic nuance, let alone lay the crucial groundwork to seed escalating terror. And aside from Clark’s self-contained vignette, in which the terrific Lynskey supplies the anthology’s most fully fleshed-out character, the stories tend to feel incomplete, ending abruptly and leaving little aftertaste. XX is a diverting enough sampler of female horror talent, but it won’t keep anyone awake nights.
Production companies: Magnet Releasing, XYZ Films
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk, Jonathan Watton, Peter DaCunha, Peyton Kennedy, Sheila Vand, Lindsay Burdge, Sanai Victoria Cunningham, Casey Adams, Angela Trimbur, Morgan Krantz, Kyle Allen, Mike Doyle, Brenda Wehle, Morgan Peter Brown, Lisa Renee Pitts
Director-screenwriters: Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama
Producers: Todd Brown, Nick Spicer
Executive producers: Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian
Directors of photography: Ian Anderson, Tarin Anderson, Shane Daly, Patrick Cady
Production designer: Jen Dunlap, Anastasia Masaro
Costume designer: John C. Houston, Bonnie Sutherland, Nik Venet
Music: St. Vincent, Craig Wedren, Jefferson Friedman, The Gifted, Carly Paradis
Editor: Josh Ethier, Courtney Marcilliat, L. Gustavo Cooper, Aaron Marshall, Zach Wiegmann
Animation: Sofia Carrillo
Casting: Danielle Aufiero, Amber Horn, Msaada Nia
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: Magnolia International
Rated R, 81 minutes