I think there's nothing quite like a good anthology horror film. It's like a horror buffet. You get a little taste of everything. The shorter time for each individual story allows for wonderful and bizarre stories to be fully told onscreen. The directors and writers get to share the wealth. Their vision comes to life in a format that allows a scary film to be made at a length that can be incredibly focused and effective. There's no unnecessary padding to bring a short film concept to a feature length; the form of anthology carries that burden.
Anthologies allow for as much or as little of a connecting theme as you want. XX is an anthology of horror films written and directed by women. The stories told are all unique with radically different tones and styles. Some recurring elements pop up, but each short film stands on its own. The condition of the anthology is horror written by women, directed by women, and starring women.
Anthology horror, if not defined by a singular theme, uses a framing device to connect the stories. Sometimes, the framing device is its own plot--the Amicus studio films always have a grand story connecting all the smaller shorts. Other times, it's a very simple concept with minimal plot--the V/H/S series literally is defined by someone finding tapes that have the different shorts on them. Simplest of all is a host who just introduces the story--think Tales from the Crypt or Freddy's Nightmares.
XX leans into the third approach and it's perfectly bizarre. A creepy dollhouse comes to life and wanders around a house. The window at the top hides a porcelain doll head that stares out at the world. The different doors and windows, vaguely human shaped, open up to reveal viscera and gore that leads into the various stories. Sofia Carrillo's stop motion animation is just disturbing in the best way possible. It sets you off guard, unable to anticipate what is to come in each story.
"The Box," directed and adapted by Jovanka Vuckovik, is the kind of psychological horror I tend to gravitate to. After getting a peak at someone's Christmas present on a train, a young boy stops eating. His family tries everything they're supposed to do to not traumatize the child over food, but nothing and no one can get him to eat.
The sound design on "The Box" is stellar. The recurring and inescapable source of dread is food at all levels of the film. The untouched plates, soon left empty, are one thing. The heavily mixed sounds of utensils hitting plates, chewing, and swallowing is nothing short of brilliant. A family obsessed over who is or isn't eating has their story told in a world where the loudest sounds are sounds of eating. There's discomfort in something so innately human and personal being exaggerated that only gets worse as more members of the family stop eating. As upsetting as the chewing sounds become, the silence that follows is downright terrifying.
Writer/director Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and writer Roxanne Benjamin collaborate on the horror/comedy segment of the anthology. Every good horror anthology has an absolutely absurd segment and "The Birthday Party" is one of the strangest I've ever seen. A mother (Melanie Lynskey, a perfect portrait of anxiety, stress, and exhaustion) prepares for her daughter's costume birthday party. She discovers her husband, dead in his study, and does everything she can to protect her daughter's special day from being ruined by tragedy.
The resulting short is a slapstick nightmare of close calls and misdirection. You know where the story has to end--it's inevitable--but the journey is twisted and surprisingly tense. It's as much a horror story as it is a darkly comedic portrait of a woman discovering what people really think about her. Aside from a husband who would rather be dead than help her plan a birthday party, she discovers that everyone around her is either mocking her or taking advantage of her generosity. She just wants a happy birthday for her daughter and instead she's thrown into a Halloween nightmare of her own invention, complete with running, screaming children following her every move.
Roxanne Benjamin pulls double duty on XX, also acting as the writer and director of the short "Don't Fall." This is the furthest removed from the other segments in the anthology. Four young people go on a trip to a remote mountainous location. They discover strange pictographs, perhaps ideograms, of four vaguely human figures on a rock right by their campsite. They know to fear the scorpions, but the greater danger is a predator they could never anticipate being real.
"Don't Fall" is solid creature horror. The monster design is excellent and really well-performed by Breeda Wool. The anxiety her character exhibits in the early segments--she's afraid of heights, she's paranoid about the local scorpions, she's convinced something terrible will happen at every moment of the trip--transforms into this really unexpected portrait of a wounded and frightened animal. Some animals cower when invaded; this creature attacks through her pain. It works very well as a metaphor for debilitating anxiety, as those pervasive thoughts of dread and worry can force someone with anxiety to push away the people who care the most about them. This monster takes it to the extreme of murder and it's effective horror.
The most well known of the writer/directors is Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer's Body, The Invitation) and her segment reclaims a problematic icon of cinematic horror. "Her Only Living Son" is a riff on Rosemary's Baby. A young woman tells her boyfriend, an aspiring actor, that their newborn is dead. 18 years later, it's revealed to be a lie so that she can protect her child from the literal evil of the world that helped create him. Her son is tall, strong, handsome, and considered special by everyone, even people who never actually met him. He's also become increasingly violent towards the world, demanding he get to live with the father he never knew and actually physically attacking people.
"Her Only Living Son" plays out like an Ancient Greek tragedy. People speak in long monologues towards each other, all riffing on the son's coming birthday and how his behavior and presence has changed or will change the world. Every interaction is defined by extreme showcases of emotion or desire and none of them actually matter as the characters' fates were sealed years before when mortals dared to play with the gods. The result is a beautifully stylized short that tells the story of a long-suffering mother from her own perspective, not from the perspective of her abuser(s) or her assigned role in a horrifying scheme. The world is, quite literally, conspiring against her and her son and she refuses to let the world define how they will live their lives.
XX is a great horror anthology. It's not what I expected just in the sheer variety of filmmaking styles and tones contained within. It's also incredibly rare in an anthology film of any kind to have every segment commit to a clear plot with actual resolution. Even the bizarre framing device manages to reveal a story by the end that is as fulfilling in its experimentation with form, pacing, and metaphor as the self-contained shorts within. I can't guarantee that you will also enjoy all the different shorts of XX, but I can promise you that they are all incredibly well made.
XX is currently streaming on Netflix.
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