Don’t be fooled by the movie’s title: there’s nothing lascivious about the horror anthology XX (2017, Netflix). Women wrote and directed each segment of XX, including the creepy stop-motion animation opening credits and interstitials by Sofia Carrillo. Men may dominate the horror genre, but women’s pain — both individual and collective — provides a bottomless well of inspiration for disturbing stories.
Yet, even in 2020, the concept of womanhood remains nearly synonymous with motherhood. Three out of four of the short films center around moms and the horrors they internalize for the sake of their families. Happy Mother’s Day!
The Box, written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic based on the story by Jack Ketchum
The Box starts with Susan (Natalie Brown) suffering from exhaustion familiar to mothers everywhere: she’s spent the day out with her kids. While she zones out on the subway ride home, her son Danny (Peter DaCunha) asks a stranger about a shiny red present he’s carrying. Susan makes a half-hearted attempt to reign in Danny’s rude behavior, but it’s clear she’s too exhausted to give it her A-game. The stranger opens the box and Danny looks inside: whatever’s in there horrifies the child. He goes home and refuses to eat; he won’t eat the day after that or the weeks after that. When Danny tells his sister Jenny (Peyton Kennedy) what he saw in the box, she, too, stops eating; then the father (Jonathan Watton) follows suit. Eventually, only Susan is left at the dinner table as her family slowly wastes away to nothing.
Self-sacrifice and shame are intertwined themes in The Box. The family is white and upper-middle-class, with a nice clean home and more than enough dinner on the table every night. They seem like the type of family who has no problems bigger than getting the kids to after-school activities on time. What could have been inside the box that could travel like a virus from family member to family member and cause them to commit slow suicide? While we’re never told outright, there are clues: Susan is accused of not caring enough about her son’s starvation and not doing anything to help him; she dreams about being a literal, bloody meal for her family. We don’t know what her days are like or whether she feels any guilt about how she’s raising her children; all we know is that she’s loving if a bit distant.
At the end of the segment, as Susan rides the subway in search of the man with the gift, a sign behind her reads, “Shame can be fatal.” Whatever Susan does for her family, however much, it’s never going to be enough. She feels shame as most mothers do, but perhaps what Danny saw in the box — and shared with his sister and father — was a family’s shame over how their needs and desires will consume Susan to death.
The Birthday Party, written by Roxanne Benjamin and Annie Clark, and directed by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent)
Kids’ birthday parties can be such a hassle for the grown-ups who have to plan it, host it, and clean up afterward. On top of that, at-home parties require a gracious hostess and military-level planning to achieve success. So many things can go wrong that might leave the birthday child — and guests — with sad memories, resentment, and future therapy bills. And don’t even start on what happens when your husband commits suicide and you discover his body one hour before the guests are set to arrive!
Mary (Melanie Lynskey) and her family live in a very nice upper-middle-class home. The family’s creepy — au pair? housekeeper? it’s never fully revealed — Carla (Sheila Vand, who is no stranger to horror) floats around the home getting Lucy ready while low-key implying that Mary is an absent, nit-picky mother. Doing nothing to prove her wrong, Mary, still in her sexy nightie and satin robe, discovers her husband’s body in his home office, apparently dead of suicide. With less than an hour to go before their adopted, African American child, Lucy’s (Sanai Victoria) guests arrive, Mary doesn’t call the cops or leave the body alone to deal with later. In her mind, the only solution is to put the body into a panda costume and set it at the table next to the cake. Who among us hasn’t done something similar?
Why Mary makes these decisions are never fully explored, but the situation ends about as well as expected. The stress of both hosting a 7-year-old’s birthday party and finding your husband dead is traumatic enough, therefore it’s easy to find sympathy for Mary in the beginning. However, Mary’s decision to a) stuff the body into a panda costume and then b) seat it at the table where the children will be, defies all logic. Even if we give Mary a pass for panicking in the moment, it’s still unclear what she hoped to accomplish. Is Mary a bad mother? Or is she just so overwhelmed by motherhood that her higher reasoning skills have completely abandoned her? The segment seems to imply that, these days, there’s not a real difference for moms.
Don’t Fall, written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin
Don’t Fall is the only segment of XX that’s not about motherhood, and it’s also the only part of the anthology that features monster horror instead of psychological horror. Motherhood, according to XX, is its own horror, but being single and child-free apparently requires an outside monster.
Gretchen (Breeda Wool) and three other White twenty-somethings are off hiking in the desert being young and carefree; at least, three of them are, while Gretchen is behaving like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud; she’s gullible, easily startled, clearly nervous, and her friends find joy in pushing her buttons and watching her squirm. While teasing Gretchen, the foursome happens upon strange pictographs on a rock wall which they laugh off as ancient superstition before heading back to their RV for the night.
For reasons we’re never given, Gretchen wakes up in a cave and is immediately possessed by a demon-like creature that matches the pictograph. Now it’s Gretchen’s turn to frighten her friends — by violently killing them all! Next time be nicer to Gretchen!
One way to look at this film is as an indictment of party-poopers everywhere. By not being more of a joiner and a good sport, Gretchen brought this all on herself. She made herself the demon’s target by standing out from the crowd. However, another way to interpret the events of this segment is that the three companions are the ones who got what they deserved. Perhaps there was no demon; perhaps Gretchen had been made a fool one too many times and lost herself in a gory rampage. Ignoring Gretchen’s concerns and personal boundaries wound up costing her companions their lives.
Her Only Living Son, written and directed by Karyn Kusama
The final segment of XX takes us back to the horrors of motherhood with the story of single mom Cora (Christina Kirk) and her son Andy (Kyle Allen) on the eve of his 18th birthday. Because this is a short film, we very quickly learn that Andy is not just a moody teenage boy — he’s quite possibly a psychopath who has tortured one of his classmates. When Cora is called into the principal’s office to deal with this she’s shocked by the cavalier attitude taken by the staff with regards to her son’s behavior. Even more shocked is the girl’s mother (Lisa Renee Pitts — a ‘cluvie!), who can’t believe this White boy is going to get away with what he’s done. In yet another twist, we learn that Andy is having more than the normal teenage boy types of problems when Cora discovers him trimming actual claws where his toenails should be.
Cora never wavers in her love and support for Andy, even when she thinks he’s a vicious sadist. What can start as a weakness in Cora’s personality quickly pivots into her greatest strength as we learn the identity of Andy’s real father (and Cora’s real name). Cora’s not stupid and she’s definitely not weak. In fact, by the end of the movie we see just how strong Cora’s love really is.
Even though XX is written, directed, and stars all women, it lacks some inclusiveness. The only two characters of color are Lucy in The Birthday Party and the victim’s mom in Her Only Living Son. The film could have benefited from a few openly LGBTQIA+ characters and disabled characters. A few looks into other aspects of womanhood besides being a mom or being your group’s annoying single friend would certainly have made this a more well-rounded project. Young women coming of age and older women past their child-bearing years are part of the experience that is female, too, as are transgender women and female-expressing non-binary people.
Still, it’s nice to watch even this limited view of womanhood from the POV of actual women. The mothers in the three segments are presented fully formed, warts and all, for us to judge, mock, or scold in a way we seldom see or do with father characters. The one non-maternal story should hit home for anyone who has ever felt left out of the gang, forced to go along, and mocked for their caution.
XX is a great start. Hopefully, this will inspire even more diverse filmmakers to tell a wider range of stories that highlight what it means to be a woman: in all its painful, tortured, self-sacrificing, gory glory.
Movie Review originally published by Meredith Morgenstern on Medium