Jovanka Vuckovic’s “The Box” operates on horror’s oldest premise: what you don’t see is the worst thing of all. That’s not to say that this sinister short feels dated or old fashioned--on the contrary, its assault on the viewer’s sense of the uncanny feels fiendishly new. Rather than rely on gore, “The Box” maintains a clinically cold detachment, allowing the dread to mount until the haunting ending leaves the viewer hoping for that oh-so-comforting sense of closure we’ve been trained to need from horror films.
The first short in the anthology XX, “The Box” begins with an eerily calm woman narrating a Christmas time shopping trip with her two children. While her husband is home cooking a sumptuous dinner for the family, she and her children find a seat on a crowded train. Her son, Danny, begins talking to a stranger who’s holding a red package. When the boy asks what’s inside the present, the man obligingly opens the box, and Danny just stares. The film’s trailer wisely starts with this chilling moment, lingering on the child’s frozen face. The story continues from there, unfolding a tragedy we’re helpless to stop, accompanied on every step of the painful journey by the mother’s ever serene voice-over.
“The Box” plays out like a nightmare. There is so much mystery, so many instances of subtly unsettling imagery, and even a hallucinatory dream sequence that features a scene as disturbing as it is beautifully shot. I’ve never seen a film that comes so close to mimicking the seamless sliding uncertainty of a bad dream, unless maybe Phantasm, which produces in the same effect in triple the running time of “The Box.” The disquietude this short can elicit makes it stand out from the other shorts in the anthology, and the viewer may find it hard to stop thinking about the haunting imagery and unexplained terror of it. For me, this would have a been a great close to the anthology, leaving the viewer with that vicious kiss-off before ejecting them back into the world of the living would have been an act of profoundly cruel artistry. But wherever it falls in the order of XX, it leaves an impression that’s hard to escape.
Based on a short story by Jack Ketchum, the original tale featured a father as the distant narrator. Vuckovic’s decision to swap the parent’s genders is an inspired one. While horror media has often either elevated the status of motherhood to near goddess-like status or demeaned it as the very root and source of evil, “The Box” takes a much more realistic stance. The mother is detached from her child’s sorrows, and remains on the outside as the horror of the box’s contents overwhelms her family. It was refreshing to see a doting father against a more coldly logical mother, a pairing hardly seen in any cinema, genre or otherwise. It goes a long way toward undoing some of that shameless gender-essentializing horror films have been guilty of, and leaves us with a memorable heroine. I mean no disrespect to the other shorts that grace XX. They’re inventive, visually pleasing pieces on their own. Now, I don’t know about you, but anthology movies have always been like a box of Valentine’s candy. I’m not about to complain about some delicious candy, no matter what’s in the center, but there’s usually only one decadent chocolate truffle, the one I always save to savor last. “The Box” is that one special treat. Go ahead, reward yourself, open the box, and peek inside...