Posted on February 20, 2017

XX: What’s in the Box?

Dawn Keetley

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.

Grade: B+

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  • Reply MRP June 11, 2017 at 7:18 am

    I felt unfulfilled by The Box – not because it didn’t provide an answer, but because it went from point to point so quickly that it glossed over a lot. The father’s temper going from meek but caring to exploding in the span of seconds (though that could be an actor fault) wasn’t convincing, and neither was the burning question of why nobody thought a feeding tube would be appropriate for three starving people.

    The Birthday Party was a fun little dark farce, and I enjoyed the odd pastel ’60s sort of aesthetic it had. It wasn’t particularly deep though, more of a comedy of errors.

    Don’t Fall had good characters that were surprisingly well-developed, but the plot just sort of happens. It’s a supernatural creature feature with all the beats compressed for time, and is little more than “monster kills things”. Great practical creature effects though, I’ll give it that.

    Her Only Living Son was the standout for me. The performance by the lead actress was fantastic and convincing, and really held it all together. The atmosphere and cinematography worked really well and the emotional core held more weight than the supernatural horror surrounding it.

    The stop-motion segments in between were interesting and well done, though at times I felt like I was watching a knockoff of a Tool video (creepy, shaky-handed doll opens a door with a weird meat tunnel behind it).

    Overall an above average horror anthology, but with some obvious weak points. Being only 80 minutes didn’t help – most of the segments would’ve benefited from being a few minutes longer.

  • Reply Annoyed June 24, 2017 at 3:49 am

    The Box was complete garbage… you tried explaining it on here and just like the actual movie… it made no sense… at all.

  • Reply Mitchell Druckemiller July 3, 2017 at 2:10 am

    There was nothing in the box, like there is no meaning to life. It’s nihilism simplified. “So?”

  • Reply Annie Lucy July 3, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    I think The Box falls into the same category as, say, Jarhead – it’s a story about lack of fulfillment and a commentary on the pointlessness of modern day humanity and the things we put so much importance on, and both movies make this point by stimulating that lack of fulfillment in the viewers. We’re pushed towards the desperate desire to achieve a certain something, and then we’re denied the fulfillment of that desire.

    Yes, it makes a point. It also makes for a story that will genuinely annoy most people. It’s the equivalent of winning an argument by kicking your opponent in the nuts.

  • Reply * July 6, 2017 at 12:32 pm

    I think the title “XX” is for the XX chromosomes that make a woman a woman in the womb, because this whole movie was directed by women. Just a thought.

  • Reply Harry July 6, 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Stopped watching after the first 2, couldn’t justify waisting any more time considering how dull and uneventful they were, honestly the stories were terrible, medicoire acting and literally nothing enjoyable about them at all.

    • Reply Stacey July 30, 2017 at 9:08 am

      You must be very dull yourself and simpleminded, clearly you are, since you can’t even spell correctly. Maybe you lack depth to understand these films. You’re the only one so far who doesn’t even try to give an analysis.

      • Reply Michael August 10, 2017 at 7:44 am

        He is one hundred percent right Stacey, I am sitting here watching this and I honestly cant understand why ANYONE would waste their time watching this movie, The topics are so edgy and it made no sense for the majority of the movies. Why did she put her husband in a costume instead of just having the guy perform, it was stupid. not even to mention the box which literally gave you the answer meanwhile everyone sat around with their thumbs up their anus trying to decipher some crazy deep meaning. The box had nothing, the kid opened the box and was baffled at the fact that the box had nothing, it scared him because why would a box which is supposed to have a present have nothing its like opening up our own lives and trying to find whats really on the inside aka religion but realizing there’s no other reason that we’re alive then because we are. Since you insisted on someone giving an explanation to this failed attempt at portraying nihilism ill just say it flat out, there was no reason for the kid to be so scared, theres no way that in that moment he was remotely wise enough as a child to make that connection, especially seeing how all of you movie buffs couldn’t. and if we were talking about more than just the box, well I wouldnt. if you arent capable of figuring it out yourself you dont deserve to know

        • Reply Lucille November 13, 2017 at 10:50 pm


  • Reply Greg Thomas July 28, 2017 at 7:13 pm

    The man, on the train, holding the box was Satan. The box didn’t have anything physical in it. The box contained an evil spirit. When the man (Satan) opened the box, the boy was possessed by the evil spirit, which took away every thing good in his life and his will to live. The boy was able to pass the evil spirit to his sister and his dad, affecting them the same way.

    • Reply Mike August 8, 2017 at 5:34 am

      I think that it was more a comment on nihilism/existentialism and idealism/cynicism. I think the box was supposed to represent life and the fact that it was empty meant there was no meaning to it. The family is starving because they had the truth revealed to them and thus no longer desired anything. In contrast, the mother’s pursuit of understanding has invigorated her, as we saw how passionless and cold she was throughout the short and when her family is hospitalized all of a sudden she becomes emotional and concerned. She even concludes the short by stating she’s hungry, as if the pursuit for truth and meaning is what drives our core desires.

      As someone else stated, it makes no sense not to use a feeding tube in the hospital, which really summed up the rest of the film- nonsensical. Horrible comedy, no grasp of the distinction between scary setting and real horror. The Box was the only remotely interesting short and frankly it’s simply resting on the strength of the original author.

  • Reply Chrissy L Castro August 1, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Wow Stacey! Calm down, you would think Harry was criticizing your movie! I will apologize for Harry and myself in advance since your also the grammer and spelling police! haha I thought they were good, different, but I really would like to know what was in the box! I like Mitchell Druckemiller’s answer (nihilism) and Annie Lucy’s answer sums up Mitchell’s discription just beautifully…”It’s the equivalent of winning an argument by kicking your opponent in the nuts.” Why, yes it is, and it left me very unsatisfied not reallly knowing what was in the box. Not just that but why would non of her family actually share with her (the mom) what was in the box! Also, it was disturbing the way the mother so enjoyed eating, even when her child wasn’t. I personally didn’t like “Don’t Fall” but that’s okay! I thought the most complete short that at least tied that individual story all together and left no unanswered questions was “The Birthday Party”. I enjoyed it, and I could imagine a mom not wanting to tell their child on their birthday that their father had died. It was entertaining to say the least, although the nanny was kind of creepy! Did they mean for her to be scary because she was.

  • Reply byron August 10, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    turned off after the first two. absolute rubbish!!

  • Reply Mystery Drips August 12, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    It’s Pandora’s box when it’s opened all hope is lost.

  • Reply yunca August 29, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    were can i find this movie i really really wanna watch

  • Reply Elizabeth September 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    It’s currently streaming on Netflix US

  • Reply Hyper September 11, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Am In the only one who made a connection between Don’t Fall and the Wendigo lore?

    The girl “profanates” a sacred Native American site by touching the painting, then she most certainly has a dream of becoming attacked and after that, her transformation begins. At first she is able to rationalize, even warning her friend to stay away from her. But by the end she loses all her humanity and begins hunting and killing her former friends, and probably eat them.

    Her appareance in “monster form” looks like a depiction of a human cannibalistic variant of the Wendigo, specially her bone structure, claws, face and teeth. Also, this creature is present in US and Canada Native American folklore, some variants of the legend say a human can be cursed to turn into one of these things.

    What do you think?

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