2022, R, 106 mins.
Mia Goth as Maxine / Jenna Ortega as Lorraine / Brittany Snow as Bobby-Lynne / Kid Cudi as Jackson Hole / Martin Henderson as Wayne / Owen Campbell as RJ / Stephen Ure as Howard / James Gaylyn as Sheriff DentlerWritten and directed by Ti West
You can really sense the variety of cinematic influences that permeate writer/director Ti West's X, a brutally effective and confidently engineered horror thriller.
The film clearly
has a fondness for Tobe Hooper's pioneering mad slasher flick in 1974's
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (beyond some obvious narrative similarities, both
that film and X take place in the 70s).
There's also a smattering of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO, John
Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and even a little bit of FRIDAY THE 13TH thrown in
for good measure. West is no
nostalgia baiting hack, though, that's just lazily regurgitating formulas
out of a very well worn genre playbook.
With X, he's obviously paying loving homage to the sinful blood
curdling excesses and macabre pleasures to be had with good old school
exploitation horror, but he has fun with crafting a unique story here with
ties to the heyday of pre-home video porn industry.
X uses many obligatory horror troupes, yes, but it's fairly clever
in how it uses them, not to mention that West has a bit more up his sleeve
here than many will expect heading in.
The plot here has
a refreshing economy: A group of Texas based porno filmmakers and actors
assemble for a shoot at an elderly couple's remote rural property, but
during the production they find themselves being targeted by psychotic
elements that want them all dead. The
leader of this soon-to-be-doomed squad is Wayne (Martin Henderson), who's
quite ambitious - and maybe a bit desperate - minded to make his own DEEP
THROAT that will take the porno world by storm.
His girlfriend is also one of the film's stars in Maxine (Mia
Goth), who's joined by her co-stars in burlesque dancer Bobby-Lynne
(Brittany Snow) and her boyfriend Jackson (Scott Mescudi).
Just about everyone here knows that they're making a XXX rated
flick to titillate audiences, whereas cinematographer R.J. (Owen Campbell)
is convinced that this production should look and feel as good as anything
Hollywood churns out. He
thinks he's making art; everyone else around him understands that, deep
down, they're making a hardcore sex picture.
But, damn it, R.J. still wants to make it look good (to that, I say
good on him!).
Helping him on the shoot is his girlfriend in Lorraine (Jenna
Ortega), serving as the boom mic operator, but she soon starts to develop
a desire to be on...well...the other side of the camera, shall we say.
film is called - ahem! - THE FARMER'S DAUGHTERS, the crew realizes
that they will need an actual farm for the production.
No problem. They
manage to secure a dilapidated and creepy farm house and surrounding land
from its equally unnerving owner in Howard (Stephen Ure), who from the
very first scene that he occupies looks anything but innocent minded.
Despite the fact that he doesn't morally approve of a dirty movie
being shot on his property (we're in the Bible belt here, folks), he
nevertheless and begrudgingly offers the crew his blessing to do their
business and then shove off. T.J. is elated with the location, thinking that it will lend
verisimilitude and production value for their bargain basement budgeted
film. The shoot goes fairly
well in the opening stages, that is until Howard's wife catches the actors
in - ahem! - action, becomes infatuated with the film and, more
crucially, the youth and sexual vitality of the players.
And in true horror film fashion, the entire crew starts to get
picked off one by one in the most grisly fashion possible, with the few
remaining survivors trying to escape their hellish predicament before they
too start pushing up daisies.
X is a
deliberately slow burn kind of slasher thriller and West takes a fairly
long time getting to all of the murder and mayhem, which is kind of
welcoming here. Sexuality has
always been a part of mainstream horror in one form or another, so his
choice to make his characters produce a porn film within the film is
pretty fitting and novel at the same time.
In the opening half of the film the story submerges itself in this
tiny film production unit that becomes a bizarrely tight knit family in
the process. It's during
these sections when X seems like it's going the BOOGIE NIGHTS route of
telling a tale of how the porn industry operated in the disco era in
question, and well before the home video market irrecoverably changed it.
As the film goes down into ghastly territory and sees this group
being terrorized by outside forces that want them murdered in the most
nightmarish manner possible it become a whole other film altogether that
reflects the accoutrements of those aforementioned horror genre efforts.
X is a double dipping shocker: It shows the porn makers in their
element without shying away from it all while also becoming a sickening -
but effectively dialed in - piece of slasher carnage.
influences are obvious, but affectionately winked at here by West and
company. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW
MASSACRE is the most clear cut example on display throughout (this film is
set just five years after that film came out), but I also liked the
quieter scenes of characters engaging in some meta dialogue exchanges
about PSYCHO and how that relates to their making of THE FARMER'S
DAUGHTER. At one point,
Ortega's wide eyed, innocent, but sinful minded mic operator wants a piece
of the action and become a performer.
Of course, R.J. steadfastly denies her request, both as her
boyfriend and for how it would make no sense whatsoever in terms of story
continuity to introduce a brand new character in the film.
She matter-of-factly reminds him that PSYCHO introduced viewers to
what they initially thought was the leading lady of the picture, only to
have her killed off very soon into the story...and with all new characters
be introduced half way through to combat the killer in question.
The irony is dripping thick in scenes like this, seeing as this
whole crew will soon be served up for the slaughter.
X revels in its Easter egg references to past icons of horror, but
it doesn't do so in a totally pedestrian fashion.
Plus, the characters here are so plucky and bright eyed for what
they're making that their spirit becomes kind of infectious despite their
lack of true talent. They all
have an Ed Woodian level of pure gumption...even while making trash.
West also grunges
up his picture to appropriate levels in terms of its visual look,
harnessing old school grainy cinematography that echoes the retrograde
grindhouse flavor of that he's aiming for throughout.
And when the kills happen they're absurdly and stomach churningly
gory, but done with a consummate assuredness and eye for suspense
(granted, as is the case with most slasher films, they become less tension
filled when they myopically focus on the violence itself).
Horror enthusiasts will, no doubt, have a ball with X, and to be
fair West mixes up perverse levels of gallows humor alongside depraved
sadism rather well. If there was an area that he fails in, however, it would be
in its thematic exploration. West
is trying, I think, to dig deeper into ideas of youth and beauty and how
some desperate and mentally/physically ravaged souls try to reclaim it
(albeit in thoroughly appalling ways), but the film rarely seems too
invested in such potentially compelling ideas.
When it boils right down to it, the characters of the old farm
owning couple - without giving too much away - aren't developed that
fully; they're more or less backwoods caricatures on pure autopilot whose
true motivations can be deduced far too early in the proceedings.
There are times when West immerses himself so much in horror
formulas that he frequently gets trapped within them and unable to
transcend his film into something truly innovative.