XX and women in horror
Review – XX
Interestingly, our foray into horror turned into an examination of gender politics the other day. Emily and I suffered through ‘The Hatred’ and were subsequently mesmerized by ‘XX’. Women’s roles and representation are one of the major differences between these movies, even though both of them feature women in the major roles; it’s also a big part of why ‘XX’ succeeds while ‘The Hatred’ fails. XX is series of short films, each of which include women as the main characters; these characters are not reduced to cliches or slasher fodder. Each woman represented is complex; their circumstances, while supernatural, are relatable, and their experiences require suspension of disbelief only insofar as the literal monsters go – the feelings are all too recognizable.
“The Gift”, the first short,features a woman, Susan Jacobs, whose son experiences a sudden and important transformation after seeing the contents of a gift box. He passes this onto his sister, and then to his father, while the protagonist is powerless to stop it. This film speaks to the common fear of losing control, but also to the fear of being isolated from those we love and unable to help. The central conflict in this story revolves around food and dining. The narrative takes that comforting family atmosphere and makes it the point of highest tension in a really beautiful way. The imagery of food is at once enticing and disturbing. Nothing is satisfactorily explained, but that’s not really the point, and there are no convenient plot modifiers (looking at you, Midnight Meat Train). Instead, we are simply forced to witness a woman lose her family while she can do nothing to stop it, without even knowing why it’s happening. At the heart of most portrayals of motherhood is the idea that the mother is the cook. One of her maternal duties has traditionally been to provide sustenance to the family. The Gift posits what happens when that duty goes unfulfilled not by choice but by supernatural force. Its examination of gender roles is spot on and fascinating. This movie made us love our mothers even more mostly for what the silently witnessed and observed while feeling powerless.
The second was my favorite out of all of them, titled “The Birthday Cake”. Mary (spectacularly portrayed by Melanie Lynskey) wakes up to prepare her daughter’s birthday celebration in a beautiful house with a beautiful, impeccably coiffed maid (the imagery is vaguely similar to
Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, so I appreciated that). She discovers, however, that her husband has died in his office. As the party inches closer and her daughter gets more and more excited, our protagonist must decide how to handle her circumstances. The facade presented by other adult characters is broken down on this woman; where they are clean and pressed, her hair is undone and she wears her nightgown and torn robe. Where they are smiling jubilantly, she is drinking heavily (this is noticed by all of the other adults, who make significant eye contact with each other but don’t bother to ask if she’s okay). The climax of this particular film is one of the best that I’ve seen in a really long time. The writing, acting, and overall tone of this piece is just flawless.
The third sequence, “Don’t Fall”, was the least like the others. It follows a group hiking out into the mountains. Gretchen is the central character, who seems kind of neurotic – afraid of heights, she is teased by her brother when he acts like he’s going to push her off the cliff. A couple of interesting things here: Gretchen’s girlfriend, Jess, is on the trip with her, and yet the friend of her brother, Jay, is clearly trying to make a connection with Gretchen. This part is
subtle, but one of the pieces that this film did really well. A cave painting and a gruesome transformation later, we see the film become a good ol’ monster movie. The horror here is more classic, but not cliche. It recalls those moments where we are transformed into monsters for various reasons, or how we often cause harm to those closest to us without being in control of the situations that cause the injury. Of course, we don’t access ancient spiritual cave monsters and literally rip our friends to shreds, but everybody’s different.
The last film, called “Her Only Living Son”, was a great exploration into a couple of things: the anxiety about one’s children growing up and becoming their own people AND the systemic privilege of good looking white men. Single mother Cora (Christina Kirk) is anxious about her son’s impending 18th birthday. She starts to realize as it approaches that her son, Adam, has started taking on unnerving qualities. He has gotten into trouble at school for something really awful that he did to a girl; however, the school does not discipline him, explaining it away to the victim’s mother and praising Adam. Of course, in this story they are all cultish followers of Adam’s unseen, sinister father. The story rings, true, however, for many folks who have experienced harassment, only to find that they are the ones who end up punished by a system that works in favor of their abuser. Especially in the environment of 2017, it’s a biting social commentary. On the night of his birthday, mother and son reiterate their bond and Adam is saved from his transformation into something dark and violent. His mother refuses to allow her son to be lost to her; she allows him to be vulnerable, which ultimately brings him back from the brink. The ending is sad, but touching.
One other thing worth mentioning: each vignette is bookended with a stop-motion living dollhouse. Of course, my first thought was to connect it to the story “A Doll’s House”, but no matter the significance, it is extremely creepy. The house has a doll’s face, and spidery
appendages that it walks on as it moves through a dilapidated mansion. There are other atmospheric elements in these transition scenes, including reviving a dead doll and a dead child with the corpse of a crow. The stop motion, combined with the content and the color scheme, creates the perfect ill-at-ease feeling. You can find XX on Netflix, and you should, because it’s real good.
We highly recommend ‘XX’ for all of the above reasons but especially because as Hollywood is grappling with its own sexual assault crisis horror is out on the fringe leading by example. In fact this review comes just before Women In Horror Month a cause we fully support. ‘XX’ allows women to shine. We here at Signal Horizon think its about time. Tell us what you thought of the movie or #TimesUp or any other issue that horror grapples with. Be sure to subscribe below or on Facebook or Twitter.
Kati has been writing for Signal Horizon since its creation. She is an instructional coach in the KC area. She loves all forms of storytelling, and cupcakes.