By Tom Moore
Anthology films have always been a great outlet for new filmmakers to not only share their own visions but also collaborate with other filmmakers. The horror genre has been mainly home to this kind of storytelling and has seen plenty of filmmakers make their mark through strong and scary short films. However, when I think back through the anthology films that I’ve seen, there aren’t many times where I can think of female directors getting their chance to tell their stories. For the most part, horror has been a male-dominated genre, but, thankfully, there actually is an anthology film out there solely full of female talent that’s worth diving right into.
“XX” is a huge milestone in the genre as four, technically five, female filmmakers come together to offer viewers some tantalizing horror stories that full dread, blood, and, in one case, laughter. Now, while the film boasts four filmmakers, there’s technically a fifth with a stop-motion framing sequence directed by Sofia Carrillo that starts the film and shows up between films. I will say that while I wished this sequence did more to connect each film and create a through-line experience for viewers going from film to film, it’s definitely a creepy film on its own.
I don’t know about you, but dolls just freak me out and the choice of using stop-motion filmmaking definitely ups the creep factor. It’s an interesting story of a living dollhouse that attempts to bring wake and an unconscious girl that’s filled with great cinematography, skin-crawling movement, and creepy imagery that keeps the horrors going between stories.
The first film, “The Box”, is as simple as its name and is perfectly displays its psychological horror and does a great job creating an engaging mystery surrounding what Danny (Peter Dacunha) sees inside of the titular box. It’s crazy how much writer/director Jovanka Vuckovic’s short film, based on the short story by Jack Ketchum, hits you in such a short time as it showcases starvation and desperation in one foul swoop. While Danny’s family is unsure why he has no desire to eat after seeing into a box that a strange man is holding on a train ride home. This simple idea is something that is absolutely terrifying to see unfold, especially when Danny begins to tell other members of the family what he saw.
“XX” is a huge milestone in the genre as four, technically five, female filmmakers come together to offer viewers some tantalizing horror stories that full dread, blood, and, in one case, laughter.”
While viewers never find out what’s exactly in the box, Vockovic does a great job keeping viewers engaged past that with some haunting visuals and an ending that hits hard. Seeing the matriarch of the family, Susan (Natalie Brown), be forced to be a bystander as she basically watches her family slowly starve to death but not really react to it is definitely heartbreaking. Not to mention, the image of Danny and other family members emaciated and being just skin and bones is visually haunting. Even the ending perfectly leaves its mark and Susan’s final remarks are ones that stick with viewers. It’s easily my favorite part of “XX” and kicks things off to a terrifying start.
Now, although the film is labeled as a straight-up horror film, the second film co-written and directed by Annie Clark definitely hits more horror-comedy vibes. It’s important for me to make this distinction because it heavily played into my viewing experience the first time watched through it. My expectations definitely made me think that Clark was attempting to scare me with “The Birthday Party”, but I quickly realized that her intentions were more on the horror-comedy side – and it definitely works.
The concept of a mother, Mary (Melanie Lynskey), attempting to make her daughter’s birthday party the best it can be after she finds her husband dead in his home office leads to plenty of funny moments. With Mary dragging her husband around the house without catching the eye of her daughter Lucy (Sanai Victoria) or their nanny, Carla (Sheila Vand) and being annoyed by nosy neighbors and rapping Pandas, there’re plenty of moments that made me laugh – especially once the full title is revealed.
“XX” is a strong milestone for the horror genre not only because it features five female directors, but because of the female perspective each story brings. There’s an underlying theme of empowerment that stems from each female driven story.”
The third film, simply titled “Don’t Fall”, comes from writer/director Roxanne Benjamin, who also co-wrote “The Birthday Party” with Clarke, presents a pretty standard demon possession horror flick with some killer practical effects. As a whole, the story about a group of friends whose camping tripped goes awry after one of them, Gretchen (Breeda Wool), gets possessed by an ancient evil is pretty straightforward.
The big thing that stuck out, though, was the great practical effects used for when Gretchen turns into a demonic beast. From the elongated fingers to the gross-looking spine that develops from this sudden change, the film’s demonic-looking figure is definitely the biggest highlight “Don’t Fall” has to offer. Other than that, it’s probably the weakest film in “XX” because of how standard fair it is, but it still has a solid story and gore that will please any horror fan.
The final film, “Her Only Living Son”, comes from writer/director Karyn Kusama and is another demonic horror film with a lot of great suspense, but with an unsurprising answer. The film follows a Cora (Christina Kirk), a single mother raising her rebellious son Andy (Kyle Allen) as she attempts to keep some of the secrets about her past hidden from Andy as his rebellious acts become more violent. There’s great building suspense as to what Cora is keeping from Andy and Kirk puts in an incredibly strong performance that displays Cora’s inner struggles.
Throughout the film, you can see how much Cora’s love for Andy and need to keep her secrets from him are slowly tearing her apart – especially when outside forces begin to foreshadow a dark presence. Unfortunately, the build-up of this great tension and mystery is dragged down by the presence of an overused character in horror – Satan. While the reveal of Cora running from her satanic cult past is interesting, I’m just tired of Satan being the prevailing answer in the genre and his “presence,” since we never really see him is just underwhelming and takes away from the shocking and slightly surprising ending.
“XX” is a strong milestone for the horror genre not only because it features five female directors, but because of the female perspective each story brings. There’s an underlying theme of empowerment that stems from each female-driven story and it’s something that needs to happen more often – not just in the anthology but features as well. Even with its flaws, “XX” is a strong showing for women in horror and is a great anthology film, in general, that offers perfectly terrifying slices of horror.