Research suggests that more women enjoy horror movies than men, and while I have yet to encounter supporting evidence in my life, the construct of XX is well overdue: an anthology film directed by the fairer sex.
Utilizing wordless, doll-centric sequences of stop-motion animation in lieu of a wraparound, XX begins the picture proper with Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” which is not to be confused with the 2009 Richard Kelly film. Working from a short story by the uncompromising Jack Ketchum, Vuckovic (author of Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead) charts the increasing unease of a suburban wife and mother (Natalie Brown, TV’s The Strain) whose comfortable and idyllic existence is upended when her son, after glimpsing inside a stranger’s parcel on the train, loses his appetite … for good. Brown gives a strong performance built upon quiet helplessness as this mysterious, undiagnosed ailment then affects her daughter and husband in short order.
Better known as Grammy-winning art rocker St. Vincent, Annie Clark makes her directorial debut — and impressively so — with “The Birthday Party.” Shifting to a polar-opposite tone, Clark’s soiree follows Mary (Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey, great as always) as she prepares for her little girl’s big celebration, mostly by attempting to hide the newly discovered, freshly deceased body of her husband. The tale essentially stands as a one-joke number, but since the joke is rooted in gallows humor, I dare not fault it. Also worth cheering: the ever-versatile Lindsay Burdge (The Invitation) as Mary’s stuck-up neighbor.
Next comes the intense exhortation of “Don’t Fall,” from XX ringleader and portmanteau vet Roxanne Benjamin, a contributor to Southbound (as well as producer of that project and the three V/H/S pix). In fact, this segment of two camping couples and one ferocious threat feels as if it could have made its home in Southbound. The most classically scare-rigged of the bunch, “Don’t Fall” is also the odd (wo)man out, in the sense — and this is not a negative — that it is unconcerned with exploring the inherent challenges of being a mother.
Nowhere is that concept clearer than Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” about a tired, middle-aged single mom (a wonderful Christina Kirk, Along Came Polly) forever struggling to make ends meet and do what’s right for her unappreciative teen son, Andy (Kyle Allen, TV’s The Path), even if that entails moving from town to town to keep his father from finding them.
The crux of XX can be found in “Son,” in an unassuming bit that finds Andy curiously licking a fleck of bloody yolk from an egg he’s cracked open: All at once, viewers get an acknowledgement of womanhood, a comment upon it and, this being horror, an icky act designed to elicit cringes.
I’d argue — okay, perhaps “argue” is too strong a word — that not one of the four talented ladies in charge here yet qualifies as a known-quantity director within the genre, although between the mis-sold Jennifer’s Body and the rather sly (and aforementioned) The Invitation, Kusama comes closest. But it’s not exactly as if they’ve been handed the opportunities, so XX marks a vital step toward sharing the wealth of material, and this batch is so varied from segment to segment, no story feels repetitive. Beyond spearheading the film, kudos are due to Benjamin (will someone please give her an entire feature?) for sticking to V/H/S’s indie-minded template of not explaining every detail; the beauty is that things are more memorable and unsettling and rewarding when their pieces remain a mystery — you know, just like women themselves. —Rod Lott