Horror anthology films have become fool’s gold of sorts. They entice audiences with unique storylines from talented directors, but have for the most part have not been a sum of their parts. The VHS Series and ABCs of Death were prime examples of this, as the subgenre has yet to have a definitively great film.
Looking to turn the tide is XX, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film is broken up into four different stories, with each being focused and helmed by all-female filmmakers (Roxanne Benjamin, Karyn Kusama, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Annie Clark, who is better known as musician St. Vincent).
On paper, XX feels like a breath of fresh air, delivering some much-needed diversity to the horror genre. With its maddeningly uneven execution however, it joins the ranks of anthology films that fail to deliver a satisfying expierenece.
To properly review an anthology film like this, its best to break up my criticism by segment. The film starts with “The Box”, which in my opinion is the only segment that truly worked. Following a mother trying to fix her family after her son become ill from seeing a mysterious box, this segment is by far the most grounded of the four. For the most part, it’s very subdued, which works in its favor at capturing deeper subtext involving the role and burden mothers face. Director and writer Jovanka Vuckovic can create some eerie moments, and while the payoff isn’t great, it’s a worthwhile ride.
Next up is the segment I was most curious about “The Birthday Cake”, which is crafted by St. Vincent. This segment follows a mother who is trying to prepare for her daughter’s birthday party when she finds her husband has died. Melanie Lynskey stars and as always gives a great performance as the frantic mother. This segment takes some fun risks, as it certainly plays up a lot of dark humor as Lynskey’s character is trying to prepare for the party while also hiding the body. However, it ends up feeling far too disjointed and tonally confused. It’s not bad, but it also fails to live up to its potential.
Easily the worst segment of the bunch is “Don’t Fall”, which feels like a shocking inclusion compared to the other three segments. Where most of the different stories try to evoke some sort of theme about women and their roles in society, this segment is just straight-up horror camp. It’s widely derivative and fails to go anywhere interesting with its formulaic set-up. There is not much too it and it hurts the cohesion the other three segments have.
Closing out the film is “Her Only Living Son”, which is written and directed by the great Karyn Kusama. Kusama is most-known for directing last year’s The Invitation, which was one of the year’s strongest genre films. This is easily the most ambitious of the four offerings, as Kusama continues to prove her strength as a craftsman. However, it ends up feeling elusive, with it being more deserving of a feature-length treatment.
Probably the most interesting and best part of XX is the animated segments that connect the four stories. Stop-motion animator Sofia Carrillo creates a simple yet effective arc that follows doll parts moving throughout a mansion. Inspired by Burton-esque animation and a gothic tone, these segments are wonderfully creepy.
XX sadly doesn’t work more than it does, but worst of it all it never feels like a cohesive experience. It’s certainly more worthwhile than a lot of horror films, but can’t quite grasp its ambitious themes.