The creepiest part of “XX,” a quartet of short horror films by women, might be the Jan Svankmejer-like stop-action segments between each of them. Sofia Carrillo’s animated antique dolls and little furniture walking on stilt-like legs are the stuff of nightmares.
The four narratives, meanwhile, achieve varying levels of black comedy and terror with an emphasis on women’s issues.
All but Roxanne Benjamin’s “Don’t Fall” feature themes related to motherhood (there is a pair of sisters in it instead). That film, like the others, fits into a familiar horror film formula: a louche group of young people on vacation goes to party at some secluded place that offers a lot more than they bargained for. In “Don’t Fall,” two couples park their camper at a sacred place in the desert near a cave with ancient lithoglyphs. Big mistake, as sisterhood proves too powerful. The film is competent, but not exceptional.
Emphasizing macabre humor, eccentric set design, and cantilevered hairstyles over gasp-inducing thrills, “The Birthday Party” by Annie Clark (a.k.a. the musician St. Vincent) features a mother determined to have her daughter’s title celebration go off right. It has elements of Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry” (1955) with a visual sensibility verging on John Waters’s “Hairspray” (1988). Melanie Lynskey pulls it all together as the touchingly fatalistic mother.
The biggest disappointment is the contribution from Karyn Kusama, whose “The Invitation” (2015) was a diabolically incremental exercise in apocalyptic horror. An apocalypse of sorts underlies Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son,” an uneven evocation of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “We Need to Talk about Kevin” (2011).
The most terrifying of the four, Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box,” also focuses on one of a mother’s greatest anxieties – getting the kids to eat. It’s Christmas time, and a mother and her young son and daughter ride the subway back to the suburbs after a day in the city. A stranger in the next seat holds a shiny, red box with a ribbon. The boy asks him what’s inside. His mother remonstrates her son, but the stranger cheerfully tells him to open it. He does so and takes a look.
His expression changes.
After that, he stops eating. Desperate, his mother asks him, what was inside the box? The boy says, “Nothing.”
The moral? Don’t look inside the box.
Directed by Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), Karyn Kusama, Roxanne Benjamin, Jovanka Vuckovic, and Sofia Carrillo. Written by Clark, Kusama, Benjamin, Vuckovic, and Jack Ketchum. Starring Natalie Brown, Melanie Lynskey, Breeda Wool, Christina Kirk, Kyle Allen. At the Brattle. 80 minutes. R (horror violence, language and brief drug use).