The habit of judging horror-anthology movies by their best segment dates back to 1945, when the British production company Ealing Studios released Dead of Night. The film has endured as a blueprint for the horror-anthology subgenre in several ways: It features a wraparound story — a bunch of high-society types trying to creep one another out at a country house — that connects each of the subsequent stand-alone narratives; it’s credited to four different directors, who all applied a different style to their respective vignettes; and it’s wildly uneven.
The first four episodes of Dead of Night are nothing special; the fifth, directed by the Brazilian-born filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti, is one of the most memorably spooky short films of all time, and transforms the movie attached to it into a classic. It stars Michael Redgrave as a nervy ventriloquist who becomes convinced that his trusty dummy Hugo is alive and developing an aggressive, psychopathic personality of his own. The pair’s increasingly codependent relationship is at once sinisterly satirical — the puppet master has his strings pulled by his own prop — and clammily compelling, largely because of Redgrave’s acting. Playing a quiet man who literally gets drowned out by his demons, he belongs in the pantheon of split-personality performances alongside Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
The one-killer-plus-filler formula applies to most of the notable horror anthologies that came after. The title of ABC’s 1975 telefilm Trilogy of Terror is a misnomer in that only one of the segments is at all scary, but it’s a doozy: a gender-flipped riff on the finale of Dead of Night, pitting mousy Karen Black against the bloodthirsty Zuni fetish doll bought on a shopping trip. George A. Romero’s Creepshow (1982), a Tales From the Crypt–style homage to EC Comics, only really jolts to life during the miniaturized creature feature “The Crate” (the best Yeti-on-the-loose movie of all time).
1983’s unfortunately notorious Twilight Zone: The Movie (actor Vic Morrow was killed performing a stunt during production) actually bats .500, surviving dismal efforts by John Landis and Steven Spielberg (whose “Kick the Can” is a syrupy abomination) by rallying with brilliant short thrillers by Joe Dante and George Miller. The former’s parable about a universe that warps at the whim of a young boy is like a nightmarish live-action cartoon; the latter’s restaging of original series standout “Nightmare at 20,000 feet” is as relentless and kinetic in its way as Miller’s later Mad Max: Fury Road.
In recent years, the V/H/S and ABCs of Death films have revived the format of the horror anthology, wedding classicism to a series of gimmicks (found-footage textures and alphabetized subject matter, respectively). But despite the participation of leading contemporary genre auteurs like Ti West, Adam Wingard, and Ben Wheatley, these indie-branded franchises are very much in the grab-bag-half-empty tradition of their predecessors. 2015’s Southbound, a quintet of stories all set along the same stretch of Midwestern lost highway, was something of a novelty — a tonally precise, enjoyably nasty throwback without one obvious standout segment. Instead, it offered audiences something at once more modest and excitingly unique: consistency.
This is also the case with XX, which was hyped last month at Sundance as the first horror anthology entirely written and directed by female filmmakers (including Roxanne Benjamin, who was also a prime mover behind Southbound) and duly outshines its modern competition — on several levels. Not only do each of its four short films — directed by Benjamin, as well as former Rue Morgue editor Jovanka Vuckovic, musician Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), and The Invitation helmer Karyn Kusama, plus interstitial material by Sofia Carrillo — each offer something distinctive to remember them by, but there’s also some stronger-than-usual connective tissue between them. Fittingly for a project that was conceived as a collective response to a lack of opportunities for female directors in contemporary horror cinema, XX is more than the sum of its parts: It holds together as a single determined and resourceful cinematic organism.
Three of the four segments in XX deal in some way with motherhood; the only one that doesn’t, Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall,” is, not coincidentally, the most conventional. It’s also an effective and atmospheric variation on the venerable don’t-go-camping-in-the-Old-Weird-America setup that strands two couples in the desert and bides its time until someone inevitably wanders off and accidentally unleashes an evil force. Benjamin’s only objective here is a series of increasingly brute-force jump scares, and she achieves it with the sort of ruthlessness that the makers of any number of bigger-ticket features — like, say, Wingard’s deadly-dull Blair Witch — should only hope to emulate.
The mandate is trickier in Vuckovic’s “The Box,” which is strategically low-key: an existential mystery (based on a story by Jack Ketchum) that speaks volumes without ever raising its voice above a whisper. The title refers to a fancy wrapped package, spied by a little boy on the subway while he’s riding home with his mother and sister, whose (unseen) contents cause the child to lose his appetite — permanently, much to the consternation of his parents, whose consciences get heavier as their son wastes away despite constantly being offered his favorite junk-food meals. The focus in particular on the guilt of mom Susan (Natalie Brown) tilts into a fable about the insatiable, carnivorous guilt of a woman who can’t understand why she can’t nurture her brood, and Vuckovic’s direction evokes a strain of domesticated desperation without sacrificing gory shocks: It’s a meaty concept, and the subtext falls off the bone.
Clark’s “The Birthday Party” (cowritten by Benjamin) addresses similar fears from a different angle: It stars Melanie Lynskey as a mother preparing to throw her adopted daughter a complicated surprise birthday party who is forced to confront a more pressing — and morbid — crisis involving the man of the house. As in “The Box,” the theme is maternal anxiety, which manifests as sick-joke slapstick; struggling and straining to support her late husband’s uncooperatively floppy body, Lynskey ably physicalizes the idea of a wife trying to (literally) keep up appearances under the judgmentally watchful gaze of her friends and neighbors.
The most ambitious entry by far is Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” which gestures (if not genuflects) self-reflexively in the direction of Rosemary’s Baby — itself a landmark of feminist horror filmmaking, albeit one with a difficult and complicated legacy connected to director Roman Polanski’s later crimes and flight from the United States. There’s a feeling that Kusama is simultaneously trying to reclaim and reroute her source material, imagining an alternate universe in which Rosemary (Christina Kirk) escaped the trap laid for her by the elderly witches next door and now lives under an assumed identity with her son Andy (Kyle Allen), a moody teenager who’s growing steadily and dangerously into his demonic birthright.
Kusama isn’t interested in paying homage to Polanski; her true model seems to be Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 film version of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which asked how a mother copes — and tries to parent — with the full knowledge that her offspring is a monster. “Her Only Living Son” tries to take this question seriously, and the way that Kusama angles the story so that Andy’s inherited malevolence dovetails with more widespread attitudes of male privilege gives it a bit of sting. She also offers up one indelible image of mother and son locked in a suffocating, potentially fatal embrace, a beautifully pulpy piece of symbolism that transcends the supernatural and instead suggests something genuinely unsettling about the ties that bind.