XX, from XYZ Films and Magnet Releasing, features four short films all directed and written by women: indeed, it is the first ever all-female horror anthology. “The Box” is written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic (“The Captured Bird”) and based on the enigmatic short story by Jack Ketchum. “The Birthday Party” is co-written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark and directed by Clark (in her directorial debut). “Don’t Fall” is written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound, V/H/S, and V/H/S/2). And “Her Only Living Son” is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation).
Since the quality of the films in anthologies are typically uneven, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of all four of the short films in XX: they are all well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and all four of them offer something—some enigma—to think about after the film ends. In fact, that’s how I’d sum up what ties the films together, which is perhaps indicated in the title: each film introduces a mystery that remains a mystery—a kind of gap or hole in the story that doesn’t get filled in. X, as it were, marks the spot. X marks this central and provocative absence.
The two best entries, the two richest and most thought-provoking, are those that frame the anthology—Vuckovic’s “The Box” and Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son.”
Here’s the official trailer for XX.
Both films feature a box that represents the unfathomable heart of the film. Both of them also brilliantly use horror to represent conflicts and tensions that inhere in pretty much all families, addressing in particular what it means to be a mother (something that, as I’ve written here, seems to be a preoccupation of horror as late).
The stand-out of the anthology, Vuckovic’s “The Box,” tells the deceptively simple story of a family whose life is changed one day on the train when the young Danny (Peter DaCunha) looks in a box carried by a fellow passenger. From that day on, Danny simply stops eating, without any reason except, as he says, there seems to be no point. His self-starvation is contagious and first his sister, Jenny (Peyton Kennedy), and then his father Robert (Jonathan Watton) also stop eating.
Ketchum’s story, on which the film is based, has famously spurred speculation about what’s in the box, and Vuckovic’s film renders the inscrutability of the story brilliantly, refusing to tell the viewer what Danny sees and why it makes him stop eating. The sterile mise-en-scène that Vuckovic creates, however, along with the lifelessness, the joylessness, of her characters, suggest that this perfectly “normal” white, wealthy family just dies of its own lack of vitality, its own ennui. I wondered if Vuckovic wasn’t making a comment about the way in which this “norm”—a staple of the horror genre—might not be, in the end, a dying norm, an exhausted norm, in the face of America’s increasing diversity. The film ends with the utterly detached, passive mother Susan (played expertly by Natalie Brown) embarking on a quest to find the key to the self-starvation that consumed the rest of her family. Her quest, perversely, the only thing that moves her forward, is the desire for quiescence and death.
The fourth film, Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” is also about a mother, Cora (Christina Kirk), and her son, Andy, on the eve of his eighteenth birthday. His father is absent and surrounded in some mystery, as are, it turns out, many of the locals with whom Cora interacts. Despite her son’s having apparently pulled the fingernails off of one of his classmates, for instance, the principal and the teachers refuse to expel or even suspend him. In fact, the principal declares of Andy that he is one of those boys who “will change the world as we know it.” Cora becomes increasingly anxious about the changes her son is undergoing—hence her finding and opening a box she takes from his closet.
What Cora finds in the box, and what happens afterwards, leaves us with little doubt as to who—or what—Andy is. What could have been a rather heavy-handed plot twist, however, is made much more interesting by the fact that Kusama never lets us forget that, whatever else Andy might be, he is also Cora’s son and she is his mother. The film remains, from beginning to end, also about the difficulties a single mother experiences in trying to raise a teenage son alone. The ending is kind of brilliant as it leaves it very much up to the viewer whether Cora’s and Andy’s love for each other wins out, or not, and whether either option is a good things. As I write this sentence, I’m not sure what the final image means. Like “The Box,” “Her Only Living Son” highlights the existential solitude and suffering that is often ineluctably bound to motherhood—and both Brown and Kirk do an exceptional job of conveying maternal ambivalence.
“The Birthday Party” and “Don’t Fall” are slighter films, though also interesting; like “The Box” and “Her Only Living Son,” they each blend horror with the often tortured relationships that both bind and alienate family members.
“The Birthday Party,” a blend of horror and comedy, leaves us wondering why a man (who seems to be the main character’s lover) turns up dead in one of her rooms. Mary then inexplicably shoves the dead body in a costume and props it up at the head of the table during her daughter’s birthday party. Things ensue designed to scar her daughter for life—which is perhaps Clark’s point—the way parents inexplicably, and despite themselves, traumatize their children.
“Don’t Fall” is about four people, including a brother and sister, on a camping trip that turns deadly. Gretchen seems fearful of just about everything, a fact exploited by her brother, and so it makes sense that when they discover some mysterious cave drawings, she is the one who is most affected.
“Don’t Fall” is notable for its beautiful exterior shots and also for the way it shows how the demonic becomes literalized in its characters’ lives—something that all four short films do in one way or another.
XX saw a limited theatrical release on February 17 and it also available on demand.
As an aside, two of these films put the mystery held in a box at their center–pursuing an incredibly important trope in the horror film, as Gwen points out here.