Directed by: Ti West
Distributed by: A24
Written by: Patrick Hao
Ti West has always stood out amongst his contemporaries in the horror genre for his incisive ability to deconstruct the genre to the barebones. There was his breakout hit, an homage to 80s style teenage babysitter genre in “House of the Devil” and 60’s style slow-burn haunted house film with “The Innkeepers,” West’s films are part intellectual video essay on what makes the genre work and exercise in his craftsmanship. “X,” his latest horror film might be his most essayistic piece yet, exploring the deep connection between violence and sex as entertainment by exploring both the 70’s porn boom and the popularity of video nasties.
“X’s” plot pays homage to the grindhouse horror of the time. Hallmarks and influences from films like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Last House on the Left” are abundant. The plot finds an amateur film crew led by strip house entrepreneur Wayne (Martin Henderson) in 1979. Henderson plays Wayne like a knock-off Matthew McConaughey, all the swagger, none of the charisma. He has grand visions of filming a porno to capture the success of “Debbie Does Dallas” and the burgeoning VHS market. Along for the ride is his fiancée and star Maxine (Mia Goth), who dreams of being a big star, co-stars Bobby Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) and the film crew of RJ (Owen Campbell) who wishes to elevate the film to the French New Wave and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), his shy girlfriend.
They find themselves at a cheap barn and board house where they will shoot “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The farm is actually owned by the wispy Howard (Stephen Ure), an old man whose bones are just as creaky as his home. He lives on this farm along with his wife, Pearl (whose actress would constitute a spoiler) who longs for sex and the beauty of her youth. From there, the looming sex and violence are all but inevitable.
But nothing West does in “X” is accidental. The film’s setting in 1979 is particularly deliberate. The year presents an interesting turning point in American culture – prime cocaine, pre-AIDS. As mentioned before, “Debbie Does Dallas” just came out the year before, and there were the major porn blockbusters that were given high art status such as “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door.” That’s soon changed as the conservative Regan era years come in, along with the rise of his evangelical constituents, and VHS makes porn into a private activity – pushing it towards being regarded as pure smut. Horror is also in an interesting space in these years as well. “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby” added legitimacy to the genre. But the beginning of the tape trading of controversial titles that lived off its reputation of being snuff films like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “The Faces of Death” series.
It is clear that West had all of these elements in mind while he was making “X.” His post-conversion 16mm aesthetic perfectly mimics the films that he is making reference to. Then there are the clever editing tricks he uses, using Eisenstein techniques to draw parallels between violence and sex as entertainment.
This is also a movie about movie-making, no matter what the genre is. The characters become ciphers of film discussions you can believe West has had with his contemporaries and past contributors Amy Seimetz and Adam Wingard. At one point there is even toast to independent cinema.
That is not to say that “X” is just a cold exercise whose goal is to exhibit West’s bonafides as a film buff. The characters build bonds, and he allows them to have tender moments of kinship. West also knows how to have fun with gore, unlike some of the recent “elevated horror” that has gotten attention in the past few years. When the bloodletting starts about halfway into the film, it comes often and fast. A mix of clever rug pulls, set up-punchline, and practical effects add to the flair.
“X” is a rare example of having its cake and eating it too. West was able to craft a brainy exploitation horror film without sacrificing the fun that should be had with it. And as a rumination to the pornography and slashers of the time, “X” might be a perfect tribute.
“X” is in wide theatrical release.