The horror anthology — multiple short films, often from different directors, all tied together with a wraparound framing device — has been a staple of the genre since at least 1919 and the German Eerie Tales. Since then, horror has thrived in the short form, though television was the preferred medium from the 1950s–’90s, with series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Tales from the Darkside, The Twilight Zone and the show that delivered unto us the wisecracking Crypt Keeper, Tales from the Crypt. With home video, the energy quickly swung back to the movie format, with George A. Romero’s Creepshow and entries produced by Steven Spielberg (the doomed Twilight Zone: The Movie) and Spike Lee (the twisted and campy Afro-horror of Tales from the Hood).
By the late ’90s, horror anthologies fell out of favor with American audiences, at least until Asian directors infected us with the malevolent spirits of Three (2002) and Three…Extremes (2005). Since then, horror directors have been contributing to multiple ongoing anthology film series like The ABCs of Death and V/H/S. Wait, maybe I should have specified male horror directors — women account for only six of the 96 directors who worked on the five highest-grossing anthologies of the past seven years. And two of those are the Soska sisters, a directing team.
XX is billed as “Four Deadly Tales by Four Killer Women,” and that tokenizing tagline is thankfully the only hyper-feminized, toothless aspect of the film. Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) is the most well-known and accomplished director in the lineup, and her short “Her Only Living Son” impresses with a combo of humor and anxiety as she reimagines Rosemary’s Baby — what if she ran from the devil and raised his son like a normal kid? A scene in which the mother (Christina Kirk) realizes her problem child’s principal is actually one of several satanic sentinels guarding the boy seems ripped right out of the Crypt, just soaked in a more wicked grade of irony. When another mother complains that the boy yanked off all of her daughter’s fingernails, the principal’s response is … blame the girl for bringing it on herself.
Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound) has the creature effects on lock in “Don’t Fall,” about a young woman who keeps falling for pranks until she’s possessed by an ancient evil and gets her revenge. The nasty Giger-inspired spine sprouting out of her back chills, but when her dehydrated black corpse fingers rip into her victims’ bodies, the bloodbath is oh so fun.
Jovanka Vuckovic, former editor of Rue Morgue Magazine, tackles psychological horror in “The Box” by depicting a middle-class family torn apart by a little boy’s refusal to eat. Crisp and nearly sterile, this Fincher-dark piece is full of subtle, sardonic humor. The boy seems possessed by something as he slowly starves himself to death, and every time the mother asks him what’s going on, all he can do is shrug his shoulders and mutter, “Nothing.” That’s a fantastic play on the breakdown of communication in a family, how a mother can be alienated from her once-loving children as they come of age. Vuckovic has a background as a visual-effects artist, which comes in handy for one horrifying cannibalistic dream sequence.
The least developed of the four shorts, “The Birthday party,” belongs to Annie Clark (aka the musician St. Vincent). It’s her first time writing/directing anything, so it’s to be expected she might struggle some with story structure. The indelible Melanie Lynskey, with her sharp comic timing and that tiny exasperated voice, makes this story — about a woman trying to hide her husband’s corpse during her daughter’s birthday party — float. But Clark introduces idiosyncratic characters with hair inexplicably styled like plastic dolls; their arrival is jarring enough to be a little funny, but they have no bearing on the story.
Wrapped in Sofia Carrillo’s whimsical stop-motion animation, heavy in embroidery and little talisman objects that come to life, the four shorts traverse the spectrum of “horror.” XX is a bit more disjointed than I’d like in an anthology, where one particular mood might reign over the whole. A good anthology is built like an album, with the arrangement of songs creating a kind of overarching narrative trajectory. (Luckily, the sound design and score, which hit consistent thematic notes across all four shorts, work to hold XX together.) I’d rather see these shorts included in a co-ed anthology, which would allow each director’s piece to gain resonance via proximity to works of shared themes. Still, if it takes segregating the sexes to climb up to gender parity, I can overlook a slightly mismatched directing combo.