I’m looking forward to the time when the work of four women filmmakers coming together in a horror anthology is not considered a novelty, but we do not live in that world yet. So that is the motif that connects the segments of XX: they were written and directed by women. (Imagine how ridiculous it would be to try to sell an anthology on the fact that all the segments were made by men!) I’m always glad to see women filmmakers working, of course. But I don’t like seeing them stuck in a pink ghetto. (A lipstick kiss for a poster? Really?) Three of the four short films are about mothers worrying about their kids, and — again — it’s good to see stories about motherhood told from women’s perspectives, but it’s also impossible to imagine that three of four shorts in an anthology directed by men would be about fatherhood.
My anger at the gender disparity in filmmaking almost overshadows my disappointment that these four short films aren’t very interesting or very scary. All of them are admirable in their ambition but simply not very satisfying as spooky stories.
First up is “The Box” [pictured above], adapted from a short story by renowned horror writer Jack Ketchum by director Jovanka Vuckovic. Mom Susan (Natalie Brown: Welcome to Mooseport) scolds her young son, Danny (Peter DaCunha), for pestering a man on the subway about what he’s got in the big beribboned box on his lap, but the man (Michael Dyson) doesn’t mind showing the kid. Whatever it is that Danny sees unsettles him so much that he loses his appetite, and when he still hasn’t eaten days later, Danny’s distress begins to spread to the rest of the family. There’s a nicely Twilight Zone-ish mood to this one, and one gruesome expression of Susan’s anxiety over her sudden lack of ability to nurture her family in the most basic way, by feeding them. But the horror of it is muted by a frustrating ambiguity not in the mystery of the box but in the subdued response by others (like doctors) to the family’s apparent psychosis. You’d think someone would be alarmed…
The second film — and the best of the bunch — is “The Birthday Party,” the directorial debut of Annie Clark (aka alt-rock musician St. Vincent), written by Clark and Roxanne Benjamin. Mary (Melanie Lynskey [The Intervention], the biggest name here) wakes up on the morning of her daughter Lucy’s (Sanai Victoria) birthday party to an unexpected discovery that will definitely burst the festive atmosphere if she can’t keep it secret. This one opens a vein of morbid black comedy rather than one of blood, sending up suburban parenting oneupmanship and the motherly desire that everything be absolutely perfect for a child’s big day. The vibe is so off-kilter that this could well be taking place in a parallel universe just a half a step to the side of our own, but it’s a little underbaked, and never develops into the truly tasty morsel it might be.
“Don’t Fall,” written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, is the closest to straight-up horror of the four as it follows a group of friends — including Gretchen (Breeda Wool) — on a camping outing in the desert, where they spot ancient and ominous petroglyphs on a lonely hillside that would appear to be a warning to stay away, or a threat about what might happen if they remain. There’s little surprise in what comes next, mostly because of the story’s unironic embrace of hoary clichés of the horror genre.
The best known of the four filmmakers, Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), wraps up the anthology with “Her Only Living Son,” a close second best of the batch. On the eve of his 18th birthday, single mom Cora (Christina Kirk) is concerned over a sudden change in attitude of her son, Andy (Kyle Allen): her sweet boy has turned cruel and violent. With a smart upending of some of the tropes of the subgenre this turns out to belong to, it offers an unexpected and unusual twist on truisms about a mother’s love. It all might go on a bit too long, however: the film drags along the way of getting to its shocking ending.
XX could have done with a fifth film: Though the interstitials between each short, by award-winning animator Sofia Carrillo, are nicely creepy, even they only just barely pad out the total feature running time to a scant 80 minutes. Surely there are other female filmmakers with something to say in the realms of horror. If they are going to be offered a voice, why such a scant one?