XX is a movie with a crusade. Initially devised as a horror anthology project meant to put female voices and experiences at the forefront of the horror genre (a place which they have been notably absent), XX, despite its range of stories and styles, is best identified by its cause rather than its themes.
And yet, the film itself doesn’t feel political so much as it does fiercely unique. Combining four shorts from notables like Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation) and Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) as well as newer names like Jovanka Vuckovic and Roxanne Benjamin, all framed within a creatively creepy animated framing sequence from Sofia Carrillo, XX tells a quartet of narratively disparate (though not dissonant) stories, each with a complex female character at its center.
It’s no secret that even the best and most successful horror anthologies are uneven – VHS is on its third go-round despite churning out largely divisive shorts since 2012 – and so is the case with XX. And as to be expected from a feature created by four different creative voices, each of the shorts are not created equal.
The first is easily the most classically skillful. The Box, based on the Jack Ketchum short story of the same name, is Vuckovic’s haunting tale of existential dread pricked with a little gleeful, stomach-churning gore that’s perfect for the short film format. Gender-swapped and trading in the anxieties and pressures of motherhood, it’s a Twilight Zone homage with an occasionally frustrating MacGuffin that nonetheless houses the kind of sticky insidiousness that helps set the tone for XX‘s hellscapes to come.
Clark’s is the most visually stunning of the bunch – dripping with the aesthetics that we’ve come to know from her stylized, candy-coated music videos and again plucking at the tightly coiled anxieties of feminine perfection, it’s hard to call Birthday Party a horror movie of the traditional sort. In fact, the short: a satirical drama that reads like a strange and gorgeous collision of Weekend at Bernie’s and We Need to Talk About Kevin (with a fabulously self-aware performance from Melanie Lynskey) only qualifies as a horror film thanks to its hilarious final moments, which deliver a grotesque and deeply funny finale that rewards any viewer willing to suspend their disbelief for the film’s slight running time.
Then comes Don’t Fall, Benjamin’s trope-riddled take on well-held monster movie traditions. And while the monster effects are delightfully gory, and the plot is refreshingly streamlined, coming off a similarly skillful “group of friends beset by dark sources” segment in Southbound, her relatively by-the-numbers short can’t help but feel a bit disappointing. It doesn’t try anything particularly new, but it certainly serves as a handy calling card for studios – if it doesn’t “wow” enough to succeed as a standalone short, it’s certainly glowing proof Benjamin could easily helm an ambitious feature of her own.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the final short, handled by the most veteran filmmaker of the bunch (Kusama), that stands out as the most fully realized. Her Only Living Son is, in its basic DNA, a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, following up with the dutiful, often terrified mother and her philosophically dubious and increasingly demonic teenage son. The short’s ultimate trajectory is easy to anticipate, but amidst the darkly cheerful Americana and a few goose-bump inducing body horror touches, Her Only Living Son isn’t held aloft by the plot so much as its subversive take on the well-worn premise.
Bookending the series is Carillo’s careful and deeply eerie Jan Svankmajer-esque animation, a strong aesthetic choice that helps to frame the four films within images of decaying conceptions femininity.
It’s hard not to lament the anthology’s lack of overt thematic coherence – none of the directors traded notes before they began production on the project – especially considering the coincidental synchronicity between three of the four films. XX is imperfect, sure, but it’s also rich, interesting, and rife with surprisingly fresh perspectives on the genre, made even more striking by each of the films’ adherence to traditional horror tropes. If we ever needed proof that the landscape of horror could be improved simply by the presence of new and different voices, XX provides it in spades.