It’s important that the scariest segment in XX, Magnet Releasing’s women-helmed horror anthology film, is also its most elementary: Young people trek out into the wilderness for fun and recreation, young people incur the wrath of hostile forces, young people get dead, easy as you please. You’ve seen this movie before, whether in the form of a slasher, a creature feature, or an animal attack flick. You’re seeing it again in XX in part because the formula works, and in part because the segment in question, titled “Don’t Fall,” must be elementary to facilitate its sibling chapters, which tend to be anything but.
XX stands apart from other horror films because it invites its audience to feel a range of emotions aside from just fright. You might, for example, feel heartache during Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” or the uncertainty of dread in Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” or nauseous puzzlement with Sofia Carrillo’s macabre, stop-motion wraparound piece, meant to function as a palate cleanser between courses (an effectively unnerving work, thanks to its impressive technical achievements). Most of all, you might have to bite your tongue to keep from laughing uncontrollably during the film’s best short, “The Birthday Party,” written and directed by Annie Clark, better known by some as St. Vincent, in her filmmaking debut.
Sandwiched between these stories is the aforementioned “Don’t Fall,” which comes courtesy of Roxanne Benjamin, last heard from on 2016’s excellent horror anthology Southbound. (For XX, Benjamin also serves as producer, as she did on the V/H/S/ film series, and as co-writer on “The Birthday Party” with Clark.) “Don’t Fall” effectively draws on horror’s best-celebrated traditions to send heart rates soaring with the kind of delicious terror we turn to the genre to experience in the first place. It focuses on a quartet of friends who disturb a vicious and ancient entity while out on vacation in the desert: It’s exactly what one would hope for, with hair raising carnage unleashed by the appearance of a vicious monster. But by satisfying our baseline expectations so thoroughly, “Don’t Fall” allows us to better appreciate the unique pleasures found in the film’s other narratives.
In “The Box,” based on a Jack Ketchum short story, Susan’s (Natalie Brown) family slowly succumbs to self-starvation after her son is shown the contents of the mysterious box of the title, possessed by a stranger on a train. In “The Birthday Party,” Mary (Melanie Lynskey) hurriedly prepares for her daughter’s birthday shindig, only to find that her husband has died, leaving her to hide his corpse to avoid ruining festivities. Finally, in “Her Only Living Son,” Cora (Christina Kirk), struggles to reconcile her bond with her teenage boy, Andy (Kyle Allen), who grows increasingly distant from her by the day as he yearns to meet his estranged father, and who has also developed a habit of torturing his classmates. (Carrillo’s framing device, meanwhile, follows a living, meandering dollhouse as it goes about its decidedly unclear business. Her contribution is less about plot than imagery, which is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure.)
XX’s greatest strength is its flexibility: The film gives us what we want while also giving us things we didn’t even know we wanted, though if you can’t laugh at the very idea of Lynskey frantically trying to hide a dead body from prying eyes, then perhaps this one isn’t for you. (2017 is still young, but it’s hard to imagine many feature-length productions building up to punchlines as blackly hilarious as the one “The Birthday Party” ends on.) You’ll get a healthy dose of gore, no problem, but when the camera isn’t lingering on some unforgettably gruesome sights, it’s busy tending to a core of genuine human sadness, encapsulated by the fears of its characters.
Maybe it isn’t surprising that an omnibus picture directed by women chiefly revolves around female protagonists. If so, then it also isn’t a surprise that the anxieties exhibited in each of the picture’s installments are filtered through distinctly female experiences. Motherhood is a major theme recurring throughout, and with that comes a coterie of differing stresses: The realization that you don’t know your children either as well as you think you do, or as well as you’d like to, the sensation that you’re isolated within the bounds of your own family, and all-purpose worries over whether you’re doing it right as a parent are all prevalent concerns. XX is a ghoulish chronicle of the monstrous, the mysterious, and the morbid. The film has guts, but it also has a ton of heart.
It’s also fleet of foot, which both works in its favor and against it. XX clocks in at a scant 80 minutes and moves even faster than that, wasting no time transitioning from one short to the next. But as soon as Carrillo’s ghastly fairy tale draws the film to its close, you’ll find yourself wishing for more, which is as much a testament to the caliber of the talent driving XX, as it is a remark on the impact of brevity. The project as a whole would benefit from an extra ten or so minutes of running time, just to give each filmmaker more breathing room and more space to flex their considerable creative muscles.
But if that’s the greatest complaint one can make about a movie, then the movie must be doing something right, and XX does many somethings right, whether it’s dazzling us with striking visual aesthetics, gripping us by the throat, or cutting through to the centers of our humanity. It’s a horror movie spoken with the voices of women, a necessary notice that women are revolutionizing the genre as much men.
Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, Sofia Carrillo
Writers: Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic, Jack Ketchum, Annie Clark
Starring: Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk, Sheila Vand, Michael Dyson, Mike Doyle
Release Date: February 17, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.