I’ve long had nightmares about being a mother.
In some, I am abruptly pregnant, my belly a beachball before me, threatening to burst. In others, my stomach would spasm into strange shapes, its unseen inhabitant threatening me from beneath my own skin. In the most vivid, I had a daughter, a toddler, who looked just like me and padded about my home chattering away as our family adoringly cooed over her. That one, the terror came from the simple fact I didn’t remember having her, and I didn’t know her name. Everyone around me was being so casual, and here I was in a life I didn’t recognize, caught in the unrelenting wide-eyed stare of my little doppelgänger, as my husband held my hand and didn’t understand why I was shivering. How to tell him that I didn’t know my child’s name? That even though she was clearly of me, I felt completely unconnected to her. To admit I was a bad mom, a bad woman, a monster.
Motherhood is terrifying, and so plays a perfect theme for three of the four short films found in XX, a horror anthology set apart, helmed by four women. Jovanka Vuckovic directs the first, “The Box,” which begins with a nosy boy demanding to know the contents of a bright red present carried by a stranger on the subway. His mother (The Strain’s Natalie Brown) is pulled away from a brief moment of lone contemplation to chastise him. But the stranger is all too eager to have the boy take a peek.
From there, Vuckovic knits tension from the son’s blank expression, then his polite but firm refusals to eat his dinner, then to eat at all. As her family is pulled apart by this present, the mother demands to understand why. But the answer is too terrible and petty to say aloud. Cerebral and sharp, “The Box” stabs at bad mother fears, then leaves the wound raw, punctuating its impact with a scene of ghastly gore followed by Brown’s pained but smiling expression.
Then comes “The Birthday Party” to deal another blow.
Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) makes her film directing debut with this candy-colored entry that stars Melanie Lynskey as a plucky and dedicated mother doing her best to create a picture-perfect birthday party for her darling daughter and harried husband. But as mounting threats rise to spoil the day, this mom makes stranger and sillier choices to protect her child from an inevitable heartbreak.
Lynskey’s portrayal expertly walks the darkly comic line Clark lays down, as if she’s a tight-rope walker working fearlessly without a net. “The Birthday Party” is chipper on its surface with its warm suburbia palette and overeager adult smiles. But between a side-eyeing supporting role from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’s Sheila Vand, the atrocious obstacles that challenge this loving mum, and the hypnotic slo-mo of children dressed as dolphins, earthworms, and toilets flocking into the party, there’s a sinister streak that peaks at the short’s climax with a series of scathingly hilarious title cards.
Roxanne Benjamin breaks up the maternity tales with a creature feature that pitches UnReal’s Breeda Wool into a ruthless and bloody story of a vacation gone grimly wrong. When four friends trek into a forbidden camp ground, they come across a strange cave painting that will shatter their lives as they know it. Brief but creepy, this one is more scares than substance.
Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation) gets the big finish with “Her Only Living Son,” a short that has shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin and another motherhood horror classic I can’t name without giving away this tale’s wicked twist.
Powerless scene-stealer Christina Kirk is stripped of her sass and side-eye to play a devoted single-mom who is racked with concern as her nearly 18-year-old son commits more and more terrible acts. Kusama spares audiences from seeing the teen torture a dog, or rip the fingernails from a classmate. Yet even with these grotesque acts kept off camera, the short feels heavy with the sound and description of them, made all the graver by Kirk’s heart-wrenching reactions. Rejecting garish gore and operating on their own terms, Kusama and Kirk birth a short film that is restrained and poignant, yet grisly and chilling.
Then stitching together these haunting horror shorts are interstitial stop-motion animation that features a dollhouse. No, not a house where children house their adorable dolls. This is a toy house which brandishes a doll’s unblinking face affixed to the top floor exterior where an accent window might be. Its legs are segmented spindles that clatter like spider’s limbs, and its hands, ceramic and free to roam to do their bizarre business. It’s a cross between the opening of American Horror Story and a charming Etsy shop, unnerving yet playful and distinctly feminine, an aesthetic that also applies to the film as a whole.
All together, these shorts and their unsettling cartoon companion create a horror anthology that’s more than scary. XX is richly disturbing. Watching its stories feel like falling into slippery nightmares, the kind that seem almost sweet as the daylight is breaking, yet leave you feeling shaken and unsure, even as your feet hit the floor.
XX hits theaters, On Demand, iTunes and Amazon Video on February 17th