When director Jovanka Vuckovic introduced XX at its Sundance premiere, she made the origins of the project clear. A horror anthology that brings together installments from four female directors, Vuckovic said it was created “directly in response to the lack of opportunity for women filmmakers, particularly in the horror genre.” Horror, of course, is a genre that’s often touted as an easy first step for upcoming filmmakers, but sexism runs deep within the film industry, and for the producers of XX, one of the best ways to combat that was to simply create more opportunities for women in the first place.
The finished film combines shorts from Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), and Anne Clark (better known as St. Vincent), all bound together by imaginative wraparound sequences by animator Sofia Carrillo. It’s at turns terrifying, hilarious, and uneven, but succeeds in doing its most important job: showing off a range of distinct directorial voices.
What’s the genre?
It’s a horror anthology, but inside that you’ve got a black comedy, a more traditional monster flick, and even a Satanic psychological drama.
What’s it about?
Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box” is about a family that is slowly picked apart after a stranger on the subway shows their youngest son something mysterious he’s hiding in a big red box. Suddenly the boy won’t eat, and won’t explain why. Then he tells his sister what he saw, and she won’t eat. As the two children start to waste away, the boy then talks to his father... Based on the Jack Ketchum short story, “The Box” is the most straightforward short in the batch, and uses some disturbing visual effects to portray the young children as they literally starve to death.
It’s followed by “The Birthday Party,” a black comedy directed by musician Annie Clark. Melanie Lynskey plays a suburban housewife that is simply desperate to throw her daughter the most wonderful birthday party she can imagine. Her personal idiosyncrasies aside, everything seems to be going well, until she discovers her husband has committed suicide. But a party is a party, and the show must go on.
Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” is a traditional cabin-in-the-woods style thriller. A group of friends head out to a remote location to camp where they notice some ancient markings on a rock outcropping. Later that night, an ancient force takes control of one of their own, and comes after the group in a exhilarating display of visual audacity and perfectly timed scares.
Karyn Kusama wraps the anthology up with “Her Only Living Son.” The short is centered around a single mom whose son is turning 18 and has been demonstrating some disturbing and violent tendencies. It turns out that the boy’s father isn’t exactly who the mother has always said he was, and now he is coming back to collect on a debt he’s owed.
What’s it really about?
Given that this is an anthology of shorts, there’s not the thematic continuity you would get in a normal feature. (Few of the filmmakers traded notes beforehand, and the only unifying directive was that each entry needed to be directed by a woman and feature a female lead.) But the shorts do give their own unique spins to what could be considered traditional story types. “The Box” tracks the horror of the children slowly dying, but its emotional thrust is with the mother, as she sees her perfect life spiral away without any control. Clark is exploring familiar comedy of errors territory, but it’s the pressure on suburban woman to conform and fit into a perfectly manicured life that she’s lampooning, with hilarious results. The dudebros of “Don’t Fall” are utterly unprepared for the ancient evil that descends upon them. And Kusama takes setups that have been explored in countless occult films before, but explores them through to their logical, human conclusion, asking how a mother would actually react when faced with such horrors.
It’s a good example of why Hollywood as an industry needs more diverse and representative filmmakers behind the camera. These directors are offering their own twists and takes, providing insights that haven’t been explored yet. It’s worth saying that diversity and representation aren’t just optics problems, even though that’s how they’re often treated by organizations like the Academy Awards. They’re vital to the health and growth of any art form, and projects like XX demonstrate that creative urgency.
But is it any good?
It’s a lot of fun! Like nearly all anthology films, some entries are better than others. My personal favorites were “The Birthday Party,” thanks to its wonderful irreverence and pitch-black sense of humor, and “Don’t Fall,” which on a sheer execution level is a rocket-fueled nightmare trip full of images I’m still thinking about. But even if some segments don’t play as well as others, they each have interesting things to say, and the beauty of an anthology is that there’s always another entry just around the corner if one chapter isn’t working for you.
What should it be rated?
This one is pretty easy. Rated “R” for murdering demons, screaming children, dying children, and squirrel cruelty.
How can I actually watch it?
XX hits theaters February 17th, but it’s also hitting iTunes, Amazon, and streaming services at the same time.
This review originally appeared on January 24, 2017, in conjunction with the film's screenings at the Sundance Film Festival. It has been republished to coincide with the film's theatrical and streaming release.