Traditional horror anthologies are difficult to critique as an artform since they often leave a lot of room for error in experimentation. Recent films like Trick ‘r Treat & Southbound have modernized the horror anthology format into a familiar everything-is-connected structure that used to be a go-to for indie dramas in the mid 00s. This allows characters & storylines to cross paths & blend borders so that each short story segment coagulates into one all-encompassing gestalt. A more traditional horror anthology format would keep each of these segments rigidly separated, connected only through a wraparound buffer. Isolating each segment usually means that the film’s overall value as a collection is often ignored in favor of critiquing each individual story on their own terms. I don’t, for instance, knock Creepshow as a whole just because I despise the segment where Stephen King plays a hick farmer or dismiss Twilight Zone: The Movie because of John Landis or Stephen Spielberg’s duds of contributions. Instead, I tend to forget to even recall those segments and focus entirely on the short form experiments that did work for me: the Howard Hughes archetype who’s terrorized by roaches, that ludicrous Joe Dante segment with the cartoon demons, etc. Horror anthologies, like sketch or improv comedy, allow directors to take big chances in small doses. When these short form experiments pay off, they can be seared in your brain forever. When they fall flat, it’s easy to forget they even exist, which leaves little impact on the overall quality of the anthologies that contain them.
XX is the rare kind of horror anthology where each individual experiment pays off. Four concise, slickly directed, but stylistically varied horror shorts each take a chance on a premise rich enough to justify an 80 minute feature’s leg room, but is instead boiled down to a digestible, bite-sized morsel. The stories are connected only by a delicately beautiful stop-motion wraparound (seemingly inspired by the stop motion animation classic Alice) and the gender of their directors, but together form a solid unit of efficient, effective horror filmmaking where every moving part manages to pull its own weight. The four female filmmakers involved in the project (five if you include the wraparound’s animator Sofia Carrillo) worked independently of each other, unaware of the ways their own contributions might visually or thematically overlap. This goes against recent pushes to homogenize anthology segments into a single everything-is-connected unit (a style at least partly pioneered by one of XX‘s contributors, Southbound producer/co-director Roxanne Benjamin), but feels very much in line with horror anthology classics, not to mention the horror comics like Tales from the Crypt & Tales from the Darkside that inspired them. As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.
Although their connections are entirely incidental, three of the four stories told in XX touch on motherhood and the anxiety of raising children in their respective segments. Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son” makes a parent’s fear of their own child a literal threat. Kusama shows her chops as the most accomplished director of the batch (last year’s The Invitation is a must-see) by expertly building tension between a single mother in hiding and her increasingly beastly teenage son. The opening segment, “The Box” is a lot less literal with this anxiety, ruminating on the ways raising children can suck the life out you in a spiritual, philosophical sense reminiscent of a classic Twilight Zone episode or the music video for Radiohead’s “Just.“ Annie Clark (of St. Vincent, guitar-shredding fame) directs the always-welcome Melanie Lynskey in the segment “The Birthday Party,” which lightens the mood of the motherhood anxiety by ending on its own music video style comedic punchline involving a death at a child’s birthday/costume party. The only outlier of the bunch is “Don’t Fall,” a motherless creature feature set on a camping trip that goes horrifically wrong when a young group of cityfolk desecrate sacred ground in the wild. It’d be understandable to argue that having one outlier in an otherwise thematically cohesive collection somewhat dampens XX‘s overall value as an anthology. I just see it as a natural part of horror anthology tradition, where uneven, off-kilter variance in themes & mode of expression is a highlight & an asset, not a drawback. One (competently made) outlier like “Don’t Fall” is just as much of a necessary feature for XX to feel like an old-school horror anthology as its rigid, animated wraparound buffers or its individualized title cards. It’s perfect in the way it invites imperfection into what shouldn’t be a tightly controlled environment in the first place.
I can’t objectively say exactly why XX struck such a chord with me while it’s left a lot of critics lukewarm or even bitterly cold. Some of my personal resonation might be linked to the way certain titles or themes echo the accomplishments of movies I already dearly love without retreading any of the same ground. “The Box” & “The Birthday Party” in particular share names with two of my all-time favorite features (directed by Richard Kelly & William Friedkin, respectively) and Karyn Kusama’s contribution functions as a semi-sequel to another one of my personal favorites (in print and onscreen) so well that even speaking its name might be a kind of spoiler. This sense of tradition obviously also extends into the way XX follows the rigidly segmented format of horror anthology past, recalling some all-time greats like Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and (a recent discovery for me) Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. My appreciation of this feature-length collection might be even more simple than that, though. From the way food is dreamily framed in “The Box” to the way sound design is playfully jarring in “The Birthday Party” to the way the whole world crumbles around us in “Her Only Living Son” to the basic creature feature surface pleasures of “Don’t Fall,” there’s something worth latching onto in each segment of XX, some feature that can never outwear its welcome or play itself too thin thanks to the temporal limitations of its format. I find great, long-lasting pleasure in that, especially in the way each experiment becomes more sketched out as I mull them over in my mind long after the credits roll. It’s a damn good horror anthology in that way.