There’s something about XX, the four-part horror anthology that just popped up on Netflix, that feels hard to talk about. It’s not as though the material is unapproachable, or poorly made, or even mostly enjoyable. Hell, it was one of the titles I was most excited about coming out of Sundance, not just for the premise but for the directorial debut of musical fave St. Vincent aka Annie Clark, her leading lady Melanie Lynskey, and the follow-up feature of Karyn Kusama after 2016’s The Invitation, easily the best American horror film that year. As much as most great horror films have female leads, rarely are they made by women, and the idea of four interconnected stories coming from an exclusively female point of view was so enticing I watched it as soon as I realized it was streaming online. Yes, it’s uneven, as all interesting horror anthologies are, but the connective tissue is missing, and at some level all four seem underserved by their time constraints. This doesn’t stop the best features from being entertaining – incidentally, the best ones are by Clark and Kusama, with strong leading performances from Lynskey and Christina Kirk – but even their potency feels primed for more time to explore their protagonist’s dilemmas and flesh out the narrative. Consequently, the weaker first and third features feel even more stifled and underdeveloped than another five minutes would’ve allowed. Like the film, I’ll be dividing the review up into four segments, for the sake of being cute about it, with small intermissions to mention cool yet pretty unrelated stuff that, nevertheless, is still in the film. And now, without further ado, let’s begin.
Maybe it’s unavoidable at this point in time and media history to not think just the teeniest bit about American Horror Story when thinking about horror anthologies, but what gave me the strongest – perhaps the only – reminder of anything AHS has attempted was the stop-motion vignettes that separate each short film with the goings on of several monstrous doll houses with ports for porcelain doll faces. Other living toys flit about, along with teeth, an apple, other random objects, all existing in some sunlit, white-paint attic. Crafted by Sofia Carillo, it might be stretch to say that any one segment comments on the upcoming story so much as setting a tone or suggesting a narrative trajectory, but they’re all fun to watch and fairly inventive.
Doing us the kind grace of opening with its weakest story, Jovanka Vuckovic’s The Box doesn’t seem to have a strong enough hand on its own story. A young mother is helpless to watch as her son, then her daughter, then her husband all fall victim to some mysterious spell that makes each one happily unwilling to eat anything, even as it kills them. Her inactivity, evolving from an unconcerned assumption everything will work out to a state of resigned acceptance that everyone around her is doomed, is never given a proper explanation from the script or actress Natalie Brown. I’ve read reviews suggesting this is inspired from some Stepfordian symptom to act as though everything is fine when it clearly isn’t, but Brown doesn’t seem to be playing denial so much as she is the flippancy of someone who thinks their problems will work out even if an immediate solution isn’t in front of them. Her husband’s accusation that she doesn’t care that their children aren’t eating should ring falser than it does – hell, make her blatantly happy her family is practically finishing themselves off of you want – but instead it feels off because we have no idea what this woman is thinking. A dream sequence where her family finally eats a horrific meal feels cheap not because of any unearned shock value, it just feels like wasted potential. Even the closing narration suggests a slightly more interesting film waiting in the wings, as the woman tries to track down the man with the box in the hopes of being like them, of being with them. A mother’s exclusion from a bond the rest of her family share, as terrible as that bond is, for the sake of maintaining a semblance of normalcy, feels like it should pay off richer dividends than it does. I’ll give it credit for the combination of makeup and VFX that make the characters so emaciated, and how well it captures their gradual thinning out of existence, but this story has less meat on its bones than most of its characters. As is, The Box is easily the most weightless pick of the bunch, practically floating away next to the stronger styles and stories of the subsequent segments. Not just because those segments have something more to offer, but this has so little.
One question that feels obvious looking at this list of directors, and one that entered my mind pretty soon into The Box, was “Where is Jennifer Kent?”. The answer to that, according to her Wikipedia page, is that she is currently filming her next project, The Nightingale, about a young convict trekking to find the soldier who murdered her family in 1820’s colonial Tasmania. Kent herself said she received floods of offers from the United States after The Babadook premiered, instead focusing on doing more of her own work. I admire her resilience, and that XX chose to stick primarily with newer writers-directors (Kusama being far and away the exception, this being her sixth film and having about a dozen TV directing jobs to her credit), Still, her absence her feels like a lost opportunity, if only for us.
From its weakest story XX hops to easily my favorite of the segments, Annie Clark’s The Birthday Party. Set in the tone of high farce, we immediately learn the tone of the story as Clark’s opening close-up of some blue fabric turns out to be the wrinkles and folds of the nightgown covering Melanie Lynskey’s ass. Lynskey, game and hilariously neurotic from the word go, wakes up to find out that her husband arrived home early in the middle of the night, died at his desk, and, worst of all, did so the day of their adopted daughter’s seventh birthday party. It is this want to give their child the perfect party that inspires Lynskey to desperately try and hide the body rather than calling the police and harshing everyone’s vibe by telling her daughter than her father is dead. I still can’t exactly figure why Lynskey’s Mary didn’t try and prop him in the closet of his office, though it did seem like a cramped fit. Clark’s debut outing synthesizes everything so idiosyncratically delightful about her music and her persona into the presentation of the film. Mary looks out of place in her own home, with her torn robe sleeve and messy hair surrounded by hopeless gauche grasps at sophistication that seem to work for her friends. Even her severely styled maid looks more appropriate in the place than Mary does. Clark’s score also keeps the proceedings on edge, and she knows how to wield sound (of course she does) to tremendous effect, turning a child’s excited “Boo!” into a genuine jump scare by dialing up the single loudest sound bite in the whole film, and somehow making this as funny as a satisfied wink effect to commemorate the deal between Mary and a panda bear. Lynskey herself is instrumental to Clark’s success, dialing up the character’s anxiety and being able to play the whole thing for laughs without mugging in the slightest, and still finding room for emotionally beats with her daughter and her dead husband. By the end of it all she’s too tired to carry the damn corpse, hoping to hide it in plain sight, unable to stop what’s coming and finding the perfect face of exhaustion and resignation. I suppose the tone makes The Birthday Party more morbidly absurd than an outright horror movie the way that the other three segments are, but Clark and Lynskey by far craft the most singular and innovative segment of the bunch, standing out not just for its lightness but because, moment to moment, I couldn’t guess what happens next the way I could for better (in Kusama’s segment) or worse (in the other two) throughout the rest of the quartet. Clark also displays a real sense of humor in her art direction, the hilarious costumes of the children and some of the equally odd outfits and hairstyles of the parents. Two of the best props are objects Mary fusses with at the beginning, one that’s vaguely crescent moonish, the other horrifically familiar. “All she wanted was for her daughter to have a nice birthday and her jackass of a husband had to go and die.” my boyfriend said after watching it, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. It’s amazing that this is Lynskey’s second lovely performance of 2017, in another morbid comedy on Netflix that showcases her talent to great effect (the wonderful I Don’t Know How To Feel In This World Anymore). It’s just as amazing that this is only Annie Clark’s first directorial outing, so assured and confident within such an offbeat tone to operate in, let alone for this project. I’m excited to see more from them as soon as possible, and if it could possibly be together again, well, that’d be great too.
Here’s where I admit that, apart from Jennifer Kent, I really need to expand my knowledge of female voices in horror. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, and Mary Harron’s American Psycho feels like the most obvious place to start, but I really don’t know who to look out for in terms of established or up-and-coming talents. I’ll be right in line with everyone else for Dee Rees’ recently announced black lesbian horror film, and will happily look for whatever projects that are recommended to me. All filmmaking markets deserve to give more room to women filmmakers, but horror is almost as reliant as the rom-com or other stereotypically “female” genres on having compelling women in front of the camera, and by god is it time to have more compelling women behind the camera too. Especially if this genre is going to keep packaging itself using stories that are mainly exclusive to cis women’s experiences.
Don’t Fall, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (who also helped write The Birthday Party), feels like an outlier among the four films. Gone is any idea about female horror rooted in motherhood, as is any idea rooted in a specifically female experience. It’s the most conventional of the stories, the one that feels the most like the opening to a film we aren’t allowed to see the rest of. I don’t mean conventional in any bad way, but as scary as Don’t Fall is, its style feels the most generic, its ideas vague. Look, the creature makeup was great and I enjoyed the camaraderie between the four friends. As little as she had to do, it’s always nice to see The Final Girls’Angela Timbur, playing the lesbian girlfriend of the lead, no less. But there’s not much here to separate it from the opening of a pretty solid Syfy Original Movie, and I don’t have as great a sense of what’s unique about Benjamin’s directorial style as I do of Clark’s, Kusama’s, and maybe even Vuckovic’s stifled and slightly dread-filled atmosphere. That being said, there’s not a thing that’s bad about Don’t Fall. You feel the anxiety of Breeda Wool’s Gretchen, her unease not just with camping but with camping at this specific location, the way she does and doesn’t get along with the friends she’s traveling with. Benjamin finds a solid tone that works in a more naturalistic style that still accommodates a lot of hand-tipping. The depiction of the beast that possesses her is creepy, her rampage is terrifying, and the ending is genuinely scary. It’s the most straightforward of the segments to watch, Benjamin building it too sturdily to dissipate like The Box does without any of the singularities that make The Birthday Party or Her Only Living Son so fascinating. You won’t have a bad time, but the ways it doesn’t click with the other three segments makes me wish it had conformed with the others more, or that one of them (perhaps The Box) had shifted away from a specifically maternal point of view. Other reviews seem to put Don’t Fall as the most widely approved of the segments, usually not anyone’s favorite but one everyone seems fond of. And as much as I agree with these takes, I wish it had some kind of oomph to it to make it as specific as the others.
While we’re on the subject of female voices in horror, since so many horror films specifically revolved around female neuroses already, what’s to stop us from getting Lynn Ramsay’s Rosemary’s Baby? Or Karyn Kusama’s Stepford Wives? Or a female interpretation of any other paranoid, profound auteur project that use women as vessels for their ideas? Sophia Takal’s Always Shine has already been compared to a modern-day kind of Persona, and Emily Yoshida’s recent article about the male terror and fascination of women alone together brings up the very good point that, as wonderful as many of those films have been, there’s a remarkable lack of persona-swap films starring and made by women. It’s one thing to have an actress’s voice for your words, rewriting dialogue and contributing character details, it’s another to have a director’s voice making the material authentically female from the start. Perhaps this is the same thing I was talking about in the previous intermediary paragraph in a different key, but films about women’s pain and women’s terror are so often the subject of male auteurs. In this day of the remake, even if many of these films are classics (albeit classics already possessing shitty sequels or remakes), why not let a female director take a stab at a woman’s story? Men have plenty of thoughts about what it means to be a woman, the performativeness of “being” a woman in many contexts, yet actual female voices on the subject of being a woman feel sparse. Let them do it. Come on guys. Just let women tell their own stories.
Karyn Kusama’s Her Only Living Son stands out among XX’ssegments, not just for having the most interesting of the titles, but for grafting itself connective tissue to an already existing classic. Putting us in the headspace of Rosemary’s Baby isn’t Kusama tipping her hand so much as letting her cards bleed all over us, allowing her segment to accumulate narrative dread through the friction between Christina Kirk’s Cora and her son Andy, played by Heath Ledger look-alike Kyle Allen, as the film barrels towards an inevitable confrontation. Tension accrues between Cora and the other increasingly odd adults in her life, so reverent of Andy, and her knowledge of his own violent outbursts and shifting physiology. Kusama overwhelms the film with dread, perhaps overbearingly so, and I wonder how much power it gains through associating itself with one of the best horror films of all time. It’s not as though the film doesn’t stumble a little, mainly in a suspicion-confirming conversation with mailman Mike Doyle that escalates into a personal reverie towards an unseen but increasingly felt presence. Thankfully, Kusama finds textures in Cora’s seeming overprotectiveness and Andy’s vicious isolation from his mother, making both more interesting than they might have been. Their final conversation is poignant and heartbreaking, as Cora reveals the circumstances of Andy’s birth and their nomadic lifestyle. She stakes as powerful a claim on Andy as his father, and their last acts are as visceral a bond of mother-son love and codependence as some of the most interesting scenes in The Babadook. And yet, for all the power of the segment, Her Only Living Son feels the most cramped into its running time. Unsettling encounters with the mailman and the principal of Andy’s school seem to tip their hand too much for the degree of uncertainty (denial?) that hovers over the film. It’s the only film crying out for a longer middle than a longer ending, and one I would happily sit through. As is, even if it’s flawed, Kusama’s power is as palpable in Her Only Living Son as it is in The Invitation, and I’m more than ready to see what the next unsettling spectacle is she’s going to put us through.
I don’t quite know what to make of the final stop-motion segment, where the demonic dollhouse that’s been the star of these vignettes brings a human girl to life. It feels even less connected to any of the stories than the previous one, though its power in mood and craft still hold. When thinking about XX, they’re a delightful diversion but not really worth discussion. Their delightful diversionary status is undeniable, but I wished they had narrative cohesion even between the other animated segments.
As a collective, I like a lot that XX has to offer even as I find plenty to quibble with on individual levels. The Box is too insubstantial, Don’t Fall too generic, Her Only Living Son too compressed, but each one boasts significant virtues – a strong sense of mood, a compelling story, sheer filmmaking and emotional force. The Birthday Party feels like the only segment that finds the right amount of story for its time limit, boasting a unique tone and texture, with a strong central performance to boot. All the disparities between the segments only make it more interesting to talk about and read about, and I’ve enjoyed seeing what resonates with reviewers for them to pick it as their favorite. Tommy’s favorites are the second and third segments, and mine are the second and fourth. I’ve seen commenters and articles praising all four films across various publications, and that makes the whole only more fascinating to me. The variance of opinion is almost as interesting in the variance of approaches XX gives us, and if I’ve singled out particular enthusiasm for Clark and Kusama’s segments, I’d be delighted to see a feature film from any of these gals. Each segment more than lays the foundation for longer, equally interesting films, headlined by imaginative directors working with committed actresses. That’s a solid hook for me in any genre, but when that imagination is let loose in such a strange, fascinating genre, I’m ready for anything they want to throw at me.