“Now I’m a dead girl, oOoOo.”
XX, a new four-part horror anthology, arrives with only the best of intentions. The title cleverly hints at the guiding principle of the piece: a woman directed each short film included, as well as the interstitial material. Given the incessant disparity behind the camera for non-white men, XX is worth appreciating for that objective alone. Unfortunately the material doesn’t quite hold up to the motive, with little sticking out in the way of ingenuity besides the gender of the creators.
We open with “The Box” from Jovanka Vuckovic, which falls too firmly into the middle of the road. There’s some body horror, but not too much. There’s the use of creepy children, but in a more restrained way than usual. There’s an overarching mythology, and a set perspective, but they don’t add much to the overall effect. “The Box” begins with young Danny Jacobs (Peter DaCunha) peering into a stranger’s gift, and suddenly losing the will to eat. Whatever secret he learned is eventually passed around, like a spin on Radiohead’s “Just” video. We see this from the perspective of Danny’s mother, Susan (Natalie Brown), but we’re never quite rooted in her emotional state enough for that point-of-view to fully register. Vuckovic manages some nice images, especially the use of the dinner table as a start metaphor for a splintering family. But “The Box” is a bit too familiar to make an impact, even if Vuckovic employs chilliness quite well.
“The Box” is still a fair step up from XX’s worst entry, however. The third short, “Don’t Fall” is woefully generic. It follows a group of hip young people out on a camping trip as they stumble onto an ancient curse. Writer/director Roxanne Benjamin fails to offer any spin on this well-trod ground, and none of the characters cohere beyond archetypes (and a couple aren’t even given that much). Once the curse is introduced, we are treated to fairly intriguing creature horror, but the camera is more interested in the victims than the monster, to its detriment.
The remaining shorts aren’t nearly as dire, and something about “The Birthday Party” jumps off the screen immediately; this is the directorial debut of Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). The short itself fully reflects the austere insanity of Clark’s music, everything pristine but completely wonky at the same time. The first half of “Party” almost leans too heavily into this style, making it difficult to determine exactly what tone Clark is aiming for. Harried mother Mary (Melanie Lynskey) is attempting to put together the titular event for her stepdaughter, but is interrupted by a sudden death she attempts to cover up. In the second half it becomes clear that Clark is aiming for a humorous surreal vibe, which culminates in a brilliant montage ending that perfectly marries music to images of everything falling apart. The text at the end fully embraces the joke, but it never goes too far. From that tonal confusion at times, it’s clear that Clark is inexperienced. But “The Birthday Party” is never amateurish, and Lynskey is capable of carrying interest even when the direction wavers.
Unsurprisingly, the best of the bunch belongs to Karyn Kusama, the most experienced of the group. Her last feature, The Invitation, was one of 2016’s greatest horror treats, a curdling tale of attempting to reinvest in old friendships. “Her Only Living Son” captures a similar mood, with a mother (Christina Kirk) growing concerned by the behavior of her son (Kyle Allen). Kusama is becoming a master of detailing how strained relationships can be horrifying simply in their discontented nature. Of course, as in The Invitation, there’s more going on than just that anxiety but Kusama rolls out the plot slowly and carefully. Kirk is stunning, hovering somewhere between cautious concern and understandable hysterics. “Living Son” functions as a sort of sequel to a classic film (to say which might be a spoiler), and pays homage while still feeling of a piece with Kusama’s filmography. Characters and vital plots hang at the edges of frame, with the camera always searching for where the disturbance is stemming from. Uneasiness is the key here, and the balance between the insane and the grounded is perfectly maintained.
Horror anthologies are nearly always games of averages, and XX just happens to fall on the wrong side of that line. However, some (like last year’s Southbound) are aided by strong connective tissue or overarching thematic material. XX lacks either of those; the shorts are separated by unrelated material, following a stop-motion dollhouse. It’s beautiful and creepy, as directed by Sofia Carrillo, but doesn’t really tie the disparate pieces together. And some of the shorts mine similar motifs, but the four together have almost nothing in common. More anthologies should dedicate their time to groups that are underrepresented, and hopefully in that sense XX will set a precedent. This film isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a referendum on women directing horror as a whole. But it is a reminder that, like with any given collection of artists, that there’s always some chaff alongside the wheat.