Director: Ti West
Stars: Mia Goth, Brittany Snow, Jenny Ortega
Does life imitate art or art imitate life? It’s a cyclical conversation, particularly here in Ti West’s sickly curdled Texan horror yarn. Following a brief detour into the realm of the western (In A Valley of Violence), West is firmly back in his wheelhouse, but with a marked change in tone. The self-seriousness that worked so well for The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers has been exchanged for something approaching the knowing yuks of the grindhouse revival.
It’s 1979, and ‘burlesque’ dancer Maxine (Mia Goth) wants to be a star. Her boyfriend/manager Wayne (Martin Henderson – looking like both Wilson brothers at once somehow) is eager to cash in on her ambitions, acting as producer on a no-budget porno film. He’s arranged a secluded spot out in the country for them to film “The Farmer’s Daughters” with a handful of other aspiring filmmakers.
At the tail end of the ’70s there was a particular kinship between horror and porn that West evidently appreciates. With a couple of highbrow exceptions (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby), horror was largely a vilified genre, and the rise of the slasher movie in particular had conservative collars twitching. Critics thought of these films as no better than pornography. Pornography, meanwhile, was enjoying a temporary stint in the mainstream, thanks to relaxed censors and bourgeoisie hits like Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas (namechecked here).
Both were also attractive to young and industrious filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves and a quick buck in the process. A wave of new auteurs was crawling up out of horror’s murky waters, brimming with macabre creativity. Craven. Hooper. Carpenter. Cronenberg. That wherewithal is something West romanticises here with a hayseed porno shoot that gradually turns into a slasher bloodbath. He also has enough good humour to poke fun at nerdy young men trying to get pretentious about low-rent material. See earnest arthouse wannabe RJ (Owen Campbell), his thin-skinned in-film director.
Rounding out the troupe we have uninhibited sexpot Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow looking disarmingly like Madonna in the early ’90s), Vietnam vet Jackson (Kid Cudi) and RJ’s reserved girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), roped along to hold the boom mike, but quietly curious about the salacious production.
Anyone familiar with West will know he’s never one to rush, preferring the slow brood, and to a degree the same goes here. This time around, however, he’s less interested in developing a mood of unease as he is exploring character dynamics and edging up the entertainment factor. Most of the first hour concerns itself with the makings of RJ’s masterpiece; an enjoyable cruise into micro-budget filmmaking that allows his actors some room to flex.
Still, a sense of doom edges in around the margins. His sextet (how appropriate) are often depicted unaware of threats on their peripheries. Maxine takes a dip in the property’s adjacent creek, for instance, blithely ignorant to the gator following her out of the reeds. And then there’s the elderly couple who own the land; a crotchety old timer named Howard (Stephen Ure) and his confused wife Pearl (also Goth).
West plays coy with exactly what kind of threat they represent, but as night falls one gets a more vivid sense of their wacky and murderous intentions. What plays out is a miniature civil war divided by youth and virility. Howard and Pearl are horny but their bodies have betrayed them with age. These hot young upstarts on their property become both targets and objects of desire. The horror is a two-way street; a young generation fighting against the shackles of their forbearers, and the older generation aghast as their values are shorn away by the new.
And, along the way, West plays homage to the movies that made the slasher. He’s not usually one to so boldly hat-tip, but X includes brazen nods to such landmark titles as Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th and even The Shining. In the edit, certain scenes are intercut jaggedly, making for arresting transitions, perpetuating the film’s playful sense of overlay. In it’s world, the characters are aware of such horror movies, and are all the more chilled to find themselves suddenly within one. The film’s playful last line, meanwhile, acknowledges the exploitational interplay between horror and porn.
While West seems kin to tip his hat, he also has a few subversions up his sleeve. Chiefly to do with notions of purity. It quickly became a slasher movie trope for the virginal female lead to become the so-called ‘final girl’, while her more sinful friends and acquaintances got picked off early. West challenges this convention in a few ways. We’re not even sure if X is going to head that way. If it were, then “church mouse” Lorraine would be our prime candidate to last the night… but West has set up Maxine as the lead. Further confusing the situation is Lorraine’s mid-film development (much to the consternation of whiny patriarchal boyfriend RJ). There are no goodie-two-shoes babysitters for X to fall back on.
An assured feature more keenly in pursuit of fun than West’s prior efforts, X is a gooey and game addition to the subgenre, but one that does trip up a couple times. The flashback framing (reminiscent of the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake) baits the audience for something that the film doesn’t fully deliver on, while the double-duty performed by Goth as Maxine/Pearl makes one suspicious of a more involved supernatural force at work that, ultimately, never manifests. Both teases lend a sense of “is this it?” to the carnage that unfolds. But taken for what it is – a horny romp for kids and the elderly alike – X delivers on it’s promise of voyeuristic glee.