I recently watched XX, an anthology horror film, and it prompted thoughts and critical comments.
What is XX?
XX is an anthology horror film. This means it is a framed narrative, consisting of four horror shorts, each directed by four female directors. Each short presents four different stories about four different female characters.
XX is designed to display the talents of female directing within the film industry. It was released earlier this year, and has been given a 72% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
In an interview, Jovanka Vuckovic said: “I’ve been working in the horror genre for a very long time and I noticed the real lack of women and that we’ve been misrepresented in front of the screen and under-represented behind the camera for a very long time.” (Glide Magazine)
However, whilst this is not a bad motivation to create an independent film, all four shorts of XX left me disappointed.
The Box is the first short film in XX, written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic.
The story follows Danny (played by Peter DaCunha), a young boy, who, whilst riding on a train with his mother and sister, watches an old man with a red box / present. Danny is curious, and the old man lets him look inside, and Danny is then left visibly unsettled. When the family return home, Danny refuses to eat anything. Danny then speaks privately to his sister and father – whispering unknown secrets in their ear – who then also begin refusing food. The family members become thinner and thinner, eventually dying of starvation, leaving the mother alone.
What I Liked
I liked the premise of gradual starvation in The Box; I thought the ripple effect of this on each family member was suitably creepy. I also thought the use of sound, pale colours, and dim lighting helped present The Box as an unnerving story, with an undertone of melancholy.
The most disturbing part of The Box was the “nightmare” scene. I was fully prepared for this short to explore these themes of cannibalism and gore further, maybe offering an explanation as to why the family were starving themselves. Perhaps they were saving themselves for becoming abhuman, and saving themselves for a gruesome gorge later…
Alas, none of this happened. The fact it was a “nightmare” was not made explicit, its editing was poor, and so this scene jarred with the rest of the narrative. The “nightmare” scene was disregarded as quickly as it appeared, and did not contribute to any of the later story elements.
What I Disliked
There are some narrative flaws with The Box. Its structure is incoherent – both the beginning and ending do not convey that this is a horror film. Furthermore, the ending is unsatisfactory, and doesn’t tie up most of the story elements such as:
- Who was the old man?
- What was in the box?
- Why did everyone but the mother starve?
There was also clunky dialogue in places, which didn’t help.
In between other awkward and stunted sentences, certain phrases such as ‘the box’ and ‘I have to eat’ were repeated so often, it hit the message: ‘This film is about a box and starvation’ in too heavy-handed a way.
In addition to its problems with narrative structure and dialogue, characterisation was also lacking. As The Box is a short, there is very little time to get to know any of the characters and invest in … anything.
Zacharek writes that The Box is the ‘most unnerving of all these shorts’ that ‘feels as satisfying and wholly thought out as a full-length one’, an opinion I simply cannot agree with. The Box was admittedly unnerving but it ultimately fell short and left me wanting more – something which I am sure a full-length horror film would not have done. (Time Magazine)
My interpretation of The Box is that Danny, after seeing “nothing” in the box, is likewise reduced to nothing.
To me, this invokes thoughts of a curse – like the one Billy Halleck is stricken with in the Stephen King thriller Thinner – or the threat of being reduced to dust by the wrath of God (Genesis 3:19). Undoubtedly, these are ideas I’ve mapped onto the film because of my own background and experiences, but they are ideas nonetheless I believe would be viable within a horror film context.
Zacharek argues that The Box is about ‘motherhood fears’ in the midst of ‘working so hard to keep everything nice’. Again, I cannot agree with Zacharek’s opinion.
In contrast, I would argue that the mother in The Box, played by Natalie Brown, did not show anywhere near enough maternal instinct, love, concern, worry, or hard work. She barely batted an eyelid even when her little boy began to starve before her very eyes, and was seemingly willing to let him skip numerous meals without challenging this behaviour. Like a proper parent, her husband, played by Jonathan Watton, expresses concerns, and yet is met with a response as blasé as a shrug of the shoulders.
This is infuriating and makes no sense!
XX‘s marketing strategy was to market the film in as feminist a way as possible. Yet despite being made by a female horror director, and focusing upon a female protagonist, The Box has managed to present women in a negative light.
By creating a lacking short film, with a female lead who does virtually nothing to prevent the destruction of her family and shrugs off all maternal concern, it doesn’t do much to advance feminism.
I actually really liked the underlying concept of The Box – I just wish there had been better character development, better story, and a more clearly defined “purpose” to the whole thing.
XX is available to watch on Netflix.