Cohesion is a prized attribute in an anthology film, in part because it’s rare. The new, all-female horror anthology film XX almost gets there, as three shorts revolving around mothers facing unspeakable truths sit alongside a short about a group of friends terrorized by demons while on a camping trip. But it’s not the outlier that’s the accident. It’s the cohesion. The four participating directors were all given complete creative freedom for their films, limited only by budget and running time. The fact that three of them have to do with motherhood is a coincidence, a thematic near-miss that’s emblematic of the film’s main disjointed weakness.
What we’re left with is an entertaining collection of short films loosely strung together by stop-motion animation from Sofia Carillo, whose Victorian aesthetic doesn’t carry over into the work it’s connecting. The disunion inadvertently makes an interesting political point: Maybe lumping women together based on their gender alone isn’t enough. Frankly, though, the producers of XX didn’t have the luxury of hand-picking female genre directors with complimentary sensibilities, because there aren’t that many out there to begin with. There’s definitely a need for a film like this, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission threatens studios with a lawsuit claiming widespread and routine discrimination against female directors in the film industry.
The two veterans on XX, Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama, have both faced struggles in their careers: Benjamin’s been plugging away on anthology horror films like last year’s Southbound for years, turning in professional shorts but never getting the chance to make the leap into features. Her contribution here, “Don’t Fall,” is the incongruous slasher-inspired entry mentioned above, an easygoing, energetic creature feature starring a Scooby Doo-worthy gang of L.A. stoners that provides the most traditional horror shocks in the film. It’s typically solid genre work—including some gnarly special effects—from Benjamin, who could launch a slasher hit if someone would just give her the funding already.
Kusama, meanwhile, has gone a minimum of four years in between features since making her debut with 2000’s Girlfight, and went six years in between the poorly received Jennifer’s Body in 2009 and her comeback film, The Invitation (2015). Her experience shows in her entry, “Her Only Living Son,” a riff on Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen starring Christina Kirk as a mother forced to confront her son’s infernal nature on his 18th birthday. Kirk plays single mom Cora as a woman burdened by secrets, ratcheting up the sense of dread as we gradually discover what she does and doesn’t know about her only child. Much like The Invitation, the backstory here is parceled out slowly and deliberately, Kusama deftly manipulating the audience’s expectations right up until the powerful final image.
Contrast that to what’s probably the weakest film in the anthology, “The Box,” directed by longtime Rue Morgue editor and fledgling horror director Jovanka Vuckovic. Based on a story by Jack Ketchum, ”The Box” also revolves around horrible secrets; here, a young boy refuses to eat after he peeks inside a mysterious wrapped package being held by an equally mysterious stranger on the subway. The boy won’t tell his mother Susan (Natalie Brown) what he saw, but whispers it to the rest of the family one by one until they’re all wasting away. It’s an loaded premise, but Vuckovic’s sterile direction fails to fully plumb the emotional depths of Susan’s dilemma, resulting in a short that feels strangely empty.
Finally, there’s the much-hyped directorial debut of Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, who brings an artistic eye to her short, “The Birthday Party.” The ever-excellent Melanie Lynskey stars, playing a wealthy housewife desperately trying to hide her husband’s body when he turns up dead just before their daughter’s birthday party. “The Birthday Party” plays like a Luis Buñuel-style commentary on the absurdity of bourgeois manners, which would be great, except that it’s a black comedy surrounded by horror shorts. The jarring sound design and dissonant music almost get it there, and Clark has a great eye for color, but in the larger context of the film, it’s another near-miss. Like the anthology as a whole, “The Birthday Party” has some fascinating elements, but when you take a step back, they don’t quite come together.