The horror genre often serves as a crucible for the film industry; countless directors, writers and actors found their start in the proving ground of the thriller. And so it seems especially poignant to note that, at the feet of Wonder Woman’s continued worldwide dominance, some of the horror genre’s most effective, fresh ideas over the past few years have come from the minds of female directors. One only has to look back to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, (which has previously featured in culturised’s Pick of Online Film series) and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) to see the start of this trend. But even within this year alone, we’ve seen wide releases of Amirpour’s follow-up – The Bad Batch and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (which has also been examined by culturised’s Katie Goh). Now on the heels of these successes comes something else new: the four-part, four female-directed, anthology horror film XX, this week’s Pick of Online Film.
I’m a big fan of anthology horror movies, to be honest with you; I like the short, punchy, nature of the genre. Sustaining suspense over the course of a feature length film can prove highly difficult and often times it allows for more mistakes to be made as the audience is given time to punch holes in the director’s carefully thought out plot. Not so in the anthology film, these bite-sized segments of terror are often fast and biting, concerned only about milking the most amount of scares in the shortest amount of time.
The first such film I recall viewing was 2012’s V/H/S, a film I enjoyed for both the strength of the creative vision but also the amount of talent it showcased, truly some of its segments haunt me to this day. I even enjoyed its less compelling sequel V/H/S/2 (2013); a film saved from mediocrity entirely on the strength of one absolutely mind blowing segment. While I haven’t seen The ABC’s of Death (2012), another notable horror-anthology it was apparently popular enough to merit a poorly named sequel ABC’s of Death 2 (2014). But even as it seemed that the subgenre had kind of worn itself out, along came XX, ready and willing to inject new life into a stagnating pond.
XX started out in life as a showcase for four female horror directors, including three veterans of the industry and one debut director. Jennifer Lynch, Mary Harron, who directed the excellent screen adaptation of American Psycho (2000), and Karyn Kusama director of Jennifer’s Body (2009) were the recognisable names, but also being showcased in the lineup was the major debut of Jovanka Vuckovic. Eventually Lynch and Harron stepped down from the project and were replaced with Roxanne Benjamin, a producer from the V/H/S franchise, and Annie Clark, better known as the musician St. Vincent, making her directorial debut. The result is a rather unique combination of films in the landscape of today’s cinema and one certainly worthy of further exploration.
The various segments of the XX are framed by a brilliant stop-motion animation. A dollhouse with a ceramic doll face and legs scuttles around an abandoned house collecting various pins and spiders that it tucks away in a series of little drawers. Remember in Toy Story the neighborhood psychopath Sid had created the toy “Legs” by combining a doll head with an Erector Set spider body? Think that, but worse. It sounds bizarre and it definitely is, but it’s also riveting to watch and brings nice thread that weaves around the film’s quadrants. Also, it’s important to note that because of the short nature of the various segments of XX it is difficult to speak about them at any great length without getting a bit spoilery. You’ve been warned.
The first of the sections that make up XX is directed by Vuckovic and is entitled The Box. The film focuses on a single nuclear family who, one day on the way home from shopping meet a man on the subway with a box wrapped in shiny red wrapping paper. The son asks to look inside to which the man responds by casting a look at the boy’s mother before eventually allowing him to do so, stating that the box is a Christmas present. From this point on, the boy refuses to eat anything at all. After much prodding he tells his sister what was in the box, and then she refuses to eat as well. The boy’s mother is sensitive to this, but waits far longer than she should to get help. Her husband is even more worried and demands to know what was in the box so his son tells him. And then he won’t eat anymore either. I won’t completely spoil the ending of this segment but suffice it to say, it sticks with you.
The next portion of the film is directed by Annie Clark and colloquially titled The Birthday Party, the actual title being displayed at the conclusion, but it’s very long and played for laughs so I won’t spoil the joke here. It revolves around a harassed suburban mother who finds her husband has killed himself on the morning of her daughter’s birthday. So she spends the day attempting to hide the body from her daughter, the creepy maid, and the rest of the partygoers in the most lighthearted of the four segments.
The third entry into XX, entitled Don’t Fall, is directed by Roxanne Benjamin and may be the most straightforward of the pieces. A group of friends goes hiking in the desert; one of them gets attacked a smoke monster. Terror ensues.
Anchoring the film’s final act is Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son, and while the names of the characters have been changed it eventually becomes abundantly clear that the film actually is an account of the events that took place 18 years after Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Rosemary (now living under the name Cora) is concerned about the fact that her son Adrian (his name changed to Andy) is turning 18 and beginning to act up in school. Soon she is informed that his father may be coming for him, his real father that is.
Each segment of the movie has strengths to it, and I actually even like the fact that some of the segments – specifically Clark’s with its mumblecore aesthetic and pitch black humor – bring a levity to the film overall. Of the different pieces though, I felt that the most compelling was The Box, it also being the most literary. Once again, things from here on out are going to get even more spoilerific so if you want to remain unsurprised stop reading and go watch the movie and then come back and continue. At the end of The Box we never find out what was in the titular box, but we do see the Susan Jacob’s (Natalie Brown) entire family waste away in front of her until they all die. The short is something of a slow burn, starting with a fairly innocuous action by the son and then slowly devolving into an unstoppable train of horror that can really only end one way.
What’s really frightening about it though is Susan’s son Danny’s (Peter DaCunha’s) transformation from normal boy into painfully thin waif. You can see the change in his eyes almost the moment after he looks; it’s as if something has torn his sanity away and its brilliant directing on Vuckovic’s part. In order to fully convey Danny’s loss she treats us to a few short moments of his acting, in all honesty, like most young boys do: by being annoying and in your face. The family is on the subway and he’s constantly pestering everyone, including the man with the box. And then he looks inside. We as the audience know nothing good is going to happen after he does this, but Vuckovic’s masterstroke is getting us to think that he kind of deserves it. He’s annoying after all and maybe he does for a little while. But then it becomes clear just how far Danny has gone and that’s what horrifies us, the fact that just a few moments before we were rooting against this little kid. So at the end of the segment we’re not only scared of the Box’s ability but also of ourselves.
The Birthday Party contains a deliciously black joke twist, so I won’t focus too much on the plot here. What I will look at though is the impressive technical nature of Annie Clark’s directorial debut. What I immediately noticed was Clark’s command of color palette and the clarity of her composition. Early on in the piece it is revealed that the protagonist’s husband has killed himself at some point during the night. Clark resists the temptation to linger too long on the husband himself, making correct decision to keep the horror of the moment centered on Melanie Lynskey’s character, Mary. Clark uses color to tie various character to one another, in this case the darkness of the husband’s suit, with the black dress of the maid and eventually to the Panda character that comes to entertain the children at the birthday party. This subtle technique creates a connection between the actors on screen so that Clark doesn’t have to waste valuable time setting it up through dialogue or action. The color link between the characters tells us everything we need to know. Clark doubles down on this in the way in which she chooses to frame the action, particularly the maid played by Sheila Vand (who eagle-eyed viewers will recognize as The Girl from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). Where everyone else in the segment is seen in clear natural light, the house is almost entirely glass an interesting choice in its own right, Vand is constantly set in the background under apparently the only shadows in the whole house. It’s just another small technique that adds a layer of understanding for the viewer, it’s high-level stuff and one that bodes well for Clarks future as filmmaker should she continue to pursue it.
Don’t Fall like The Birthday Party, the shortest of the segments, is a little tough to talk about without delving too far into it, but there are some really interesting choices that Benjamin makes that are worth talking about. First is her choice to set it in the desert, I found myself screaming “Finally!” at the screen. I’ve personally been waiting for a good desert horror film for years. I thought it might be Mickey Keating’s 2016 film Carnage Park but that ended up more silly than frightening. I haven’t seen Benjamin’s previous effort Southbound (2015), but it appears to be set on a desolate stretch of desert highway, which may be a promising sign. The American Southwest is such a unique location: with its long stretches road utterly devoid of life it breeds a very distinct vision. There are few things more unsettling than realising that you could get out of your car and scream as loud as you could and that not a living soul would hear you. For miles. And this is an idea Benjamin plays with in Don’t Fall to her credit, she captures the isolation of the desert as a starting point and the builds the fear from there stacking layer on layer as she goes.
In Her Only Living Son, the unofficial continuance of the Rosemary’s Baby story we get a significant short that says a lot in a small amount of time. It’s no coincidence that the two strongest segments in XX are the ones that deal with motherhood most directly. In Her Only Living Son we get to see just how far a mother will go to protect her son, a theme by no means new to the horror genre but one that I’ve never seen traded on so effectively. Andy is without a doubt the devil’s child and in some ways then destined for evil and psychopathy. He’s recently ripped off another student’s fingernails because he wanted them. Yet Kusama chooses to spend time watching Cora instead of Andy, intuiting that the place in which the horror takes place is realising that the child you love more than anything in the world is the monstrosity. Not in the actions that monstrosity performs on others.
It’s a fine line to tread and in the hands of lesser director it may have failed, but Kusama directs with assurance and a bold vision. A good counterbalance from recent pop culture could be the characters of Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) and his mother Gloria Mott (Frances Conroy) in the fourth season of American Horror Story. Dandy is also a psychopath, around the same age as Andy and already a murderer. Yet where Cora is a believable and fully realised character, Gloria Mott is little more than a punchline for the series, one who bends to Dandy’s every will and whim. Consequently, Gloria is far less interesting than Dandy and the series follows his killings with interest, even though they’re rather bland and uninteresting despite an earnestly scary performance by Wittrock. So we must ask ourselves, Is Her Only Living Son more effective because of Kusama’s involvement? Its choice to follow Cora rather than Andy is certainly more interesting than American Horror Story’s interest in Dandy rather than Gloria. It’s hard to argue that Dandy is relegated to the same generic slasher we’ve seen a thousand times before because of American Horror Story’s army of male directors. Indeed there isn’t a female director present during the entirety of the season in which Dandy and Gloria’s story takes place. But what is patently observable is Kusama’s decision to focus on the horror of the mother, a quieter less graphic horror, but one that’s equally upsetting.
XX manages to pack a lot into its hour and twenty minute run-time, and its lineup of four female directors is certainly something to be celebrated. More so than anything else, XX is affective: there are moments that crawl up under your skin and fester there, in the same way the best parts of V/H/S do (and it’s worth saying in relation to an industry that still has undeniable problems with sexism that no one ever made a point about that film’s entirely male directorial lineup). What XX achieves is another solid entry into the rash of truly frightening female-led horror films and for that reason, and many others, it is this week’s Pick of Online Film.
XX can be found on Netflix in the US and the UK