XX, an all woman-created horror anthology, was released in early 2017. Given the fact that we are in the midst of celebrating Women in Horror Month, it seemed a good time to revisit the film and examine the themes brought forth by the small army of women behind it. The film had three simple rules: the segments had to be written by women, directed by women, and star a woman in the leading role. Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama each contributed segments to this film that are unique and offer their own distinct contributions to the horror landscape.
Based off of a story by Jack Ketchum and written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, the film opens on a subway at Christmas time with the Jacobs family. Susan (Natalie Brown) has spent an active day with her children in the city, and is now corralling them back home. On a crowded train, her son, Danny (Peter DaCunha) spies an older man (Michael Dyson) carrying a large box, wrapped in festive red paper. Curious, Danny asks what is inside. The man opens the box and tips it forward so that Danny can peer in. Danny becomes immediately subdued, and just after he has taken a peek, the train arrives at its next stop and the man departs.
That evening, as the family gathers for dinner, Danny sits quietly and ignores the food on his plate. When urged by his father, Robert (Jonathan Watton) to eat, he simply states that he is not hungry. This is the beginning of a tragic emptiness that quickly overtakes the family. One by one, they stop eating, giving no reason other than they are not hungry and are uninterested in food. All except for Susan. Always a bit distant from the others, she is left to stand by and watch as her family wastes away.
Before long, Robert and the children are all in the hospital, and pass away, one by one. In the final moments of the film, we see Susan wandering the subway trains, looking for the man with the package, desperate to know the secret that took her family.
On the choice to use “The Box” as the basis for her segment, Jovanka Vukovic says:
“I had written something else that turned out to be too expensive and impossible to do. And I was talking with Lucky McKee one day and he asked if I had ever thought of adapting one of Dallas’ [Jack Ketchum] stories and I remembered “The Box”. I had read it in his collection of stories, “Peaceable Kingdom” in the 90s and I remember it sort of stood out because Jack was known for writing splatter fiction and he had this one little beautiful existential horror story that read like an episode of the Twilight Zone. So I called up Dallas and we talked about it and I talked about how I had to change the gender of the protagonist to make the mandate of our anthology.
“Dallas gave his blessing. He and I talked a lot about – he was so sweet. He recorded himself reading his own short story and he emailed it to me when it was writing to help me kind of find the spirit of the story…he was such an amazing guy.”
While the film stays close to Ketchum’s original story, Vuckovic’s decision to change the protagonist from the father to the mother caused the story to take on some fascinating new dimensions.
For instance, one of the most interesting aspects of the film adaptation is the domestic role reversal of the parents. Here, Robert takes on the role of the more active, involved caretaker of the family and Susan takes more of a backseat role. He prepares meals, encourages the kids to brush their teeth. He is the first to become really worried about Danny’s behavior. Where Susan acknowledges it as odd, she at first brushes it off as unimportant, suggesting that Danny must be sneaking snacks or that this might be some sort of a stunt. Robert is concerned for Danny immediately, and that concern only grows as time goes on. Susan, instead, becomes a mother who doesn’t really have a connection to motherhood.
“So just by switching the gender, this amazing thing happened. All these new storytelling possibilities emerged. And suddenly it became a story about ambivalent motherhood, it became a story about all these sometimes negative associations that women have around motherhood and how some women genuinely have resentful feelings, but of course, we’re not allowed to talk about them.
“So then it became much more interesting to me. I met a women around that time who had told me that she had hit 40 and realized that she had married the guy from high school, she had gotten the job that she thought she should get, she had the two children…she did all these things because society and everyone else said that this is what you’re supposed to do. And she gets to 40 and all of a sudden she realizes that she hates all of them…it was so rare to hear someone speak so honestly about her resentment about the choices that she made and the pressure to do those things. And that’s what I brought to the character of Susan. Because she’s unable to make meaningful connections with her family, that’s what saves her in the end, but also tragically looking for the man with the box for the rest of her life.”
Though certainly not an abusive or hateful mother, there is definitely a separation between Susan and the rest of her family. This is shown physically at several points, with Robert sitting in closer proximity to them at the dinner table or on the couch, or just being a more active presence in the children’s lives. Robert is making dinners every night, and Susan is quickly packing lunches and handing out Pop Tarts every morning. She is not uncaring – she just doesn’t have the connection to parenting that he does.
Just before the Christmas scene, Susan has a nightmare where her family is sitting down to Christmas dinner and that Robert, Jennyk and Danny are all eating and enjoying the meal in front of them. The only catch is that the meal is Susan herself. In her dream, she is lying on the dining room table while her family cuts portions of her leg and passes them around, taking heaping forkfuls, smiling in between bites and nourishing themselves to their hearts’ content. All the while, Susan lays on the table with a smile on her face. Outside of the dream, her family may not be eating, but in their own way, they are devouring her. They share whatever this horrible secret is and leave her on the outside to watch.
It is this separation that is a driving force for her near the end. As her family is dying, she rides the train to and from the hospital each day, looking for the man who had started it all. Looking for him and hoping that he might impart the same secret to her that he first imparted to Danny. She desperately hopes that this knowledge will bring her closer to the ones that she lost.
“The Birthday Party”
Directed by Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and co-written with Roxanne Benjamin, this segment stars Melanie Lynskey as Mary, a woman stretched to her breaking point as she tries to pull off a seventh birthday party for her daughter, Lucy (Sanai Victoria). Just an hour before the party, she heads into her workaholic husband’s study with coffee, intent on him joining in on the festivities, she gets a bit of a shock – her husband, David (Seth Duhame), is sitting at his desk, dead.
Not wanting to ruin her daughter’s birthday or expose her to the shock of her father’s untimely death, Mary ops to try to hide the truth for as long as possible. She moves the body around the house, first stashing it in the study closet to hide it from the nanny and from Lucy, then trying to move it elsewhere.
Soon, there is a knock at the door. When she opens it, a man (played to hilarity by Joe Swanberg) stands before her in a panda suit, rapping a birthday greeting for Lucy. She realizes that she has found the answer to her dilemma and offers him a thousand dollars for the suit. She puts David inside the panda costume and places him at the head of the dining room table. He will be present for Lucy’s birthday and the child will not have her day spoiled by the tragic news of loss. Innocence will be preserved a little longer.
In the final scene, Mary and her dead husband are seated at opposite ends of the table as the door is opened and a group of happy party-goers and their parents parade into the house in slow motion and begin to celebrate. When the nanny brings out the cake and places it in front of Lucy, she accidentally bumps David, causing his corpse to fall forward, face first, onto the table. The costume’s head is then removed, revealing to everyone present a dead body in the midst of their innocent celebration.
The surrealism at play in this piece really makes it work. At its heart, the story is a devastating tale of a family about to be torn apart by loss, but adding in the birthday party setting, the myth of perfection and lengths that Mary will go to in order to protect her child from a horrifying truth add a layer of absurdity that turns a dark premise into a comedic story.
Though Mary will go to any length to protect Lucy from the horrific truth, that doesn’t make it easy. As she sits at the table, still in her nightgown and her hair disheveled, she pours booze into a party cup and takes a much-needed drink, not even trying to hide it from the other parents. Mary takes on her task gladly, but it is a struggle. Early on, soon after discovering David’s corpse, she manages to land under it as it falls to the ground. David lands with his arm around her, and Mary takes a moment to enjoy the quiet – just the two of them together – before glancing at her watch and noticing that she must hurry if she wants everything to be ready for the party. Quiet moments are few, and her daughter’s happiness comes first and foremost.
The film’s final moment of hilarious irony is the fact that Mary’s best and well-meaning efforts to protect her daughter actually go toward creating what is possibly the worst trauma of the child’s life. Her maternal instinct to protect Lucy from the horrible truth of her father’s death backfires in the worst possible way. Not only does Mary’s plan ultimately reveal David’s death, but in doing so, Lucy’s birthday turns from a day of joy to not only the day her father died, but the day that her birthday played as the cruelest joke imaginable, masquerading as a moment of safe innocence before tearing away the curtain to reveal in one fell swoop just how horrific life can be. Even the maternal desire to protect one’s child does not guarantee that by doing so, everything will be okay.
Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin, Don’t Fall is, interestingly, the only film in the anthology to diverge from the theme of motherhood. Instead, it offers up a more traditional creature feature with some interesting twists. In this story, a group of friends go camping in the wilderness. We quickly see that Gretchen (Breeda Wool), the timidest member of the group, is clearly outside of her comfort zone. Hesitant and fearful at every turn, she is uncomfortable with her surroundings, questioning the safety and purpose of every move, and suggesting repeatedly that the group needs to proceed with caution.
On their hike, the group discovers a strange painting on the wall of a rock face. It appears very old and seems to have been painted in blood. It depicts several humanoid figures, and one large, horned creature. As she examines the image, Gretchen cuts her hand on a sharp outcropping of rock. After studying the image for a few moments, the group moves on, heading back to the campsite.
That night, Gretchen awakens suddenly – not in the safety of the camper, but in a cave, far from the others. She looks down at her injured hand, and sees black markings – almost infection-like, expanding over her skin from the wound. She turns and sees a huge creature cornering her from the outside of cave, just before it pounces.
Back at the campsite, the others awaken to discover Gretchen’s absence. As they prepare to go out to look for her, they are besieged by a monstrous figure, attacking the camper and blocking any chance of escape. One by one, the members of the group are violently dispatched. As they are able to get a closer look at their attacker, they see that it is none other than Gretchen, undergoing some sort of horrific and violent transformation and becoming something no longer human. Her limbs and fingers have become elongated and frightening, and her spine has become sharply enhanced. After the Gretchen monster scales the face of a cliff and kills the last surviving member of the group, the film cuts to the painting on the rock wall, slowly focusing in on the creature before fading to black.
The dynamics at play in this story are interesting, in that, rather than having our lead female character stalked by the monster, she instead becomes the monster herself. Gretchen, by far the timidest member of this circle of friends, becomes the aggressor of the story. Whereas we might assume that the story would play on her timidity and see her running and hiding, Roxanne Benjamin subverts that expectation and instead creates an aggressive creature from that sense of fear. Gretchen isn’t put in the position of trying to toughen up and be the survivor at the end – she becomes the apex predator.
There is something very primal about this film. Out in the wilderness, surrounded by nothing, the group crosses paths with something very old, which cannot be explained. As they examine the rock painting, one of the friends remarks that it likely predates the time of Native Americans. Whatever it is that they encounter is older than our historical record, and far beyond our knowledge.
The creature design is very effective – giving us something that is clearly not human, but is not 100% monster yet either. We see Gretchen’s transformation and we see the way this creature seems to use what is already in front of it. Gretchen doesn’t turn into something else entirely; rather, the transformation uses the structure and form that she already has and morphs it into something new. That something new is vicious, fast, unrelenting and strong – everything that Gretchen wasn’t when she was human, which makes the transformation a terrifying step in evolution.
“Her Only Living Son”
Karyn Kusama’s contribution to this anthology is an unofficial twist on Rosemary’s Baby. It presupposes that Rosemary (played here by Christina Kirk) was able to escape the coven with the help of Dr. Hill before her baby was born, and that she and the child have been living in hiding ever since. As Andy (Kyle Allen) is about to turn eighteen, Rosemary (now living as Cora), is reflecting on the life that they have had together – a simple, but happy one.
As Andy approaches his eighteenth birthday, however, he begins to display some troubling behavior – killing small animals and attacking fellow students. Before long, Cora sees a version of her son that she has never seen – and one that frightens her. She wakes early in the morning to find Andy in the bathroom. He angrily demands that she go away and give him privacy. Before he can slam the door, Cora notices blood all over the counter and walls. In the morning, Andy angrily storms out of the house, and Cora, frightened and unsure, plays the dutiful mother and cleans the blood from the bathroom and Andy’s clothes.
On Andy’s eighteenth birthday, he and Cora have a confrontation. The changes he has been going through can no longer be ignored – by either of them. Andy confesses that he often wants to hurt Cora – to rip her apart. He said that he dreams of an empire of misery, and demands that she kneel before him. She does, bowing down before two fierce, animal-like feet.
“I want to go live with Dad now.” Andy declares. Cora rises and takes her son in her arms. She tells him about her pregnancy, how difficult it was and how he had taken every ounce of strength that she had. His father was never there through any of it, and it was always just the two of them – bonded. She tells Andy that this is not his father’s choice, but his own. Andy embraces her back, and tells her that he loves her. The pair hold tightly to each other as something viciously strong and unseen crushes them together, squeezing the life out of them as they vow to stay together. As the sun dawns the next morning, we see the bodies of Cora and Andy, still holding one another, surrounded by a pool of blood.
This film is fascinating for a number of reasons – not the least of which is the fact that it takes a classic horror story and gives its characters an alternate fate. It asks the question, what might have happened had the story progressed differently? What might have happened to Rosemary had Dr. Hill believed her story in the first place? Rather than brushing off her claims as the fantasies of a hysterical woman, what if he had believed and helped her, rather than turning her back over to the very people she was frightened of? That question alone offers an interesting commentary on society and its treatment of women. If Rosemary had been given more trust by the men she was surrounded by, her fate and the fate of her child might have been different.
This story is also told through the lens of a self-sacrificing single parent. When Andy declares that he wants to go and live with his father (and obviously not the actor father that they had run from before his birth), Cora’s speech makes it clear that she has raised and cared for Andy on his own. Even the Devil himself can be an absentee parent, and Cora has spent the last eighteen years caring for and raising their son alone. She has been his sole provider, and they have been each other’s sole support. They rely on one another, and on no one else. As she said, from the time she spent carrying them until now, they are bonded.
Kusama expertly tells this story, leaning primarily on the emotional connection between mother and son and building the suspense from that anchor. Though definitely bloodier than Polanski’s film, there is a good amount of psychological tension woven in and it easily fits as a nice companion piece to the 1968 classic.
In celebrating Women in Horror month each year, we hold up the amazing contributions to the genre from women storytellers, but we also acknowledge the fact that the film industry as a whole remains an uneven playing field. The opportunities for women are not the same as for their male counterparts. It was through this inequality that XX was first brought to life.
Says Vuckovic, “I had noticed that all of my women filmmaker friends were being passed over for jobs with all of these horror anthologies coming out. So I was thinking of crowdfunding an all women horror anthology, and then out of the blue, Todd Brown of XYZ films – he’s kind of the secret male feminist behind this project – he called me up and said the same thing – all of our women friends are being passed up – do you want to put our heads together and make something?
“That’s how I got into film in the first place. I was a magazine editor and I noticed how in the horror genre women were unrepresented behind the camera and misrepresented in front of it. And I was so tired of asking people to write women as actual human beings, that I just decided “Fuck it I’m just going to do it myself.” I think there have been enough stories told about men so my goals are to tell stories about women and to help to bring other women into the fold. That’s the whole reason we created ‘XX’ – to create jobs and opportunities where there were none. And that’s really the only way forward – if women help each other.”
XX was a milestone in filmmaking – the first of its kind. While we have obviously seen many directors come together throughout the years to celebrate their love of horror by contributing to an anthology feature, XX was the first to be driven by women filmmakers.
“We were part of this movement that was emerging and I couldn’t believe that it was 2017 and I was introducing this movie and saying that it was the first of its kind. It was really exhilarating to have a horror film be representative of the women in film problem. We were interviewed by Time Magazine and they asked me if this movie was a political statement. We literally made it as a reaction to the lack of opportunities for women in film – yes, it’s a political statement.”
After the success of XX and with the continuing demand from audiences to see more stories from women and better representation of women onscreen, it remains vital that audiences continue to seek out and support work from women filmmakers. For women hoping to break into the film industry, Vuckovic has some helpful advice:
“It’s taken me 10 years to get my first feature made, and the only reason I made it is because I didn’t give up. I just kept going. As demoralizing as it was sometimes, and hopeless as it felt, I just got up and kept going. That’s really the best advice I can give – is to keep going. And network! I belong to this group called Film Fatales – it’s an organization that has chapters all around North America. Women feature film directors that get together once a month and they talk about how they can help each other and get by in this crazy business. You’ll meet other women who might become allies, or creative partners, or producing partners. You’ve got to get out there.”
For those who have yet to see it, XX is available everywhere.