“XX” is a horror anthology composed of four segments (Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” St. Vincent’s “The Birthday Party,” Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” and Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son”), united by their writers’ and directors’ identity as women. A Tim-Burtonesque sequence of misshapen dolls and crawling hands transitions between the four, drawing in themes from each. Each section, as short stories often do, leaves questions unanswered, some more successfully than others.
Failing to heed the warning in its own title, “Don’t Fall” falls flat, lagging behind the other segments in quality. Featuring four friends on a camping trip from hell, it differs enough from the other short films to feel incongruous, and the story is undermined by clichés typical of monster stories. Though it has its fair share of blood and gore, the fear is not lasting. In comparison, “The Box” is stronger, but also not entirely satisfying, and “Her Only Living Son,” while well-done and disturbing, feels slightly abrupt as well.
“The Birthday Party” is the best in the anthology. If the other segments take themselves slightly too seriously, “The Birthday Party” does the opposite. The story follows a mother who refuses to let death interfere with her daughter’s party plans. It is packed with dark humor, from the overall concept to the details—a mix of everything from physical comedy to a panda-bear theme. The segment also pokes fun more directly at horror films. An off-putting household assistant in all black serves as the perfect female parody of the creepy butler so common to the genre. And in one scene, the child, dressed in a white sheet, frightens her mother by yelling “boo,” a self-deprecating jab at jump scares, which the segment makes ample use of. Apart from being funny, the story is also satisfyingly eerie, twisted and frightening, and the effect of its dark comedy is heightened by the more serious short films that surround it. “The Birthday Party” makes the entire anthology worth a watch.
The emphasis on the film’s female directorship invites analysis of its treatment of women. Each segment has a female protagonist, but the question remains as to how they are portrayed. Horror is a tricky genre through which to reconsider traditional gender roles. One common criticism of mainstream films is the sexist trope of the damsel in distress. But in horror, more often than not, all the characters are essentially damsels in distress, victims of some dark force. The resulting sense of hopelessness and impending doom are part of the genre’s draw.
“Her Only Living Son” does the best job of reversing the damsel-in-distress trope. Throughout the segment, the protagonist steadfastly holds on to her son. In the climax, she shows unnatural power and calm in the face of darkness. This scene succeeds in imbuing the female protagonist with impressive strength, without detracting from that terror-inducing helplessness which is crucial to the genre. The concept of female power does not belong to the last segment alone. In fact, each of the four manages to portray women, despite their victimhood, as in control. This manifests in wildly different ways. In “The Box,” the protagonist is immune to a mysterious force, while in “Don’t Fall,” she is all too involved in the gory events. All four, however give the impression that their female protagonists have some eerie knowledge or strength that nobody else does.
There are many ways, however, in which the film adheres to the classic treatment of women in horror. “The Box” takes Jack Ketchum’s short story of the same title and simply shifts the point of view from the father to mother. Aside from this switch, the film is strikingly loyal to Ketchum’s story, and some of the questionable portraits of gender are preserved. For example, a scene in the book in which the father loses his temper with his son remains in the film as a show of the husband’s masculinity, leaving the woman stereotypically quiet and calm. Instances like this are scattered throughout the film. In fact, by making their protagonists mothers, three of the segments conform to the traditional gender roles of horror at the most basic level.
Yet these instances of conformity should be considered intentional. Rather than depicting women who have risen above the gender-related problems of society, this anthology sheds light on these issues, particularly maternal pressures, by making them driving forces of dark plots and haunting effect. In “The Birthday Party” and “Her Only Living Son,” for instance, loyalty to their children urges the protagonists to engage in activities that turn out to be lethal. Here, the demands of motherhood become an instruments of horror. By placing this pressure at the center of the sinister plots, “XX” uses the common trope of mothers in horror to call attention to the often-overlooked burdens of motherhood. This self-reflexive use of stereotype might be the film’s biggest contribution to the horror genre.