Approaching an anthology film as a single piece of art is a bit tricky. On one hand, anthologies are a thematically cohesive piece of storytelling. On the other hand, each short film found within are singular in their voice and style. So you have a film that is identified as a singular whole, but that whole is made up of distinct, singular voices. This fact can make it all a bit chaotic to analyze or critique. The new horror anthology, XX, is a prime example of this. It is a gathering of artists to approach a similar whole, but they do so within their own style of storytelling and visual flourishes. There seems to be a theme of motherhood, minus one entry, and the theme of the cultural fear of the feminine. But beyond that, these shorts approach the subject matter with such a variance of style and tone, it becomes difficult to measure XX’s total by the sum of its parts.
In an attempt to fully explore the film, we will approach each entry on it’s own merits.
Firstly, and arguably most impressively, we begin with a stop-motion entry that is both dreamlike and horrifying. The director, Sofia Carillo, hasn’t been given the above the line credit of the other four directors, but it would be a mistake to dismiss her entry. It serves as an episodic break between each of the four short film entries and it is almost literally hypnotic. Like a dream, or nightmare, it doesn’t make a lot of purely linear sense but it doesn’t need to. The design, the visual execution, and the action is mesmerizing in its own right.
Secondly, we delve straight into Jovanka Vuckovic’s ‘The Box”. This is based on the short story of the same title by the infamous Jack Ketchum. It is safe to say that, of all the entries this is perhaps the most cerebral. Cerebral, in this sense, meaning that the narrative and thematic answers are not easily plucked. It is a story more interested in poking a sense of discomfort in the audience. The general synopsis is that a family on their way back from the city during the Christmas season sits next to a strange man holding a present. The boy of the family asks to see what is in it. The man shows him, the boy is confused. From there, the boy and his family return home but now the boy refuses to eat.
From here, the tension grows, the condition morphs, and things get particularly disturbing. Answers are never given. What was in the box? Why weren’t they given nutrients intravenously? Why does the mother not suffer this ailment? ‘The Box’ isn’t interested in even mildly addressing these questions. It, instead, is interested in the social makeup up. Interestingly, in the Ketchum short story the protagonist is the father. In Vuckovic’s version it is the mother. This changes the dynamic completely. In the story, the underlying theme seems to be that the culturally mandated stoic and repressed personality of the man innately separates him from the family. In the short, it is more nebulous than that. The mother seems traditionally maternal, yet she is separate. It fits social stereotypes but also subverts them. This is a short that asks questions, a lot of them of the disturbing variety, with no interests of letting the audience off the hook with simple answers.
Thirdly, as the audience is still trying to compartmentalize the experience of ‘The Box’, we are introduced to a much more colorful and exaggerated world of Annie Clark’s ‘The Birthday Party’.
This film is much more clear in the message and theme it proposes. It deals with an assumedly suburban mother who is obsessed with achieving, or at least appearing to achieve, domestic perfection. This is manifested within the short with the planning of her daughter’s birthday party. As one could assume, things do not go well in this pursuit. Feeling both satirical and somehow straight out of a fairy tale, The Birthday Party is kinetic and purposeful in its pacing and execution. It points out the ridiculousness of maternal expectations while carrying a more menacing ultimate message. It is also probably the only time you’ll giggle during this anthology.
Fourthly, we move from giggling to our most traditionally “horror” genre entry, ‘Don’t Fall’ by Roxanne Benjamin. This is the story of a group of people who go camping in a remote area and monster things happen. Granted, the monster itself subverts genre tropes a bit but ‘Don’t Fall’ still feels the most familiar to fans of horror. This short is also the narrative that seems to shift away from the motherhood undertone that flows through the other shorts. “Don’t Fall’ seems to be here to simply be a horror film with a bit of a twist. While this allows it to be a fun, and well directed, traipse through horror, it also makes it feel a little out of place within the anthology as a whole.
Lastly, the anthology ends with a seemingly, not too subtle, mini-sequel story. Karyn Kusama’s ‘Her Only Living Son’ appears to be a pseudo-follow up to ‘Rosemary’s Baby’. While it doesn’t do this in name, it follows the original story points, including the father who sold his wife’s womb for a shot at Hollywood fame, and it seems intent on capturing the same tone as the feature film. If one ever wondered what happened to Rosemary and her child, this short is for you. Beyond that, though, it is also a small, effective exploration of motherhood and what unconditional love really means.
So, as you can see, these films are both singular in theme and singular within themselves. So analyzing XX as a whole is not only a challenge, it may be unnecessary. Each short, even when flawed, presents enough subversion or thematic exploration that the running time is well worth the time. While the format may cause an audience member to feel distance from the film, each moment of connection ripped away as one film finishes and another begins, the contents are still compelling enough to engage and challenge the audience.