Set during a 70s porn shoot on a remote Texas property, this gleefully gory and playful retro-styled slasher from horror filmmaker Ti West is a savvy must-see.
March 24, 2022
When the Scream franchise posed the question it'll forever be known for, it skipped over a key word. Ghostface is clearly asking "do you like watching scary movies?", given the entire point of frightening flicks is seeing their thrills and chills, and being creeped out, entertained or both. We all know that's what the mask-wearing killer means, of course, but the act of viewing is such a crucial part of the horror-film equation that it's always worth overtly mentioning. Enter new slasher standout X, which splashes its buckets of viscera and gore across the screen with as much nodding and winking as the Scream pictures — without ever uttering that iconic phrase, though, and thankfully in a far less smug fashion than 2022's fifth instalment in that series — and firmly thrusts cinema's voyeuristic tendencies to the fore.
That name, X, doesn't simply mark a spot; it isn't by accident that the film takes its moniker from the classification given to the most violent and pornographic movies made. This is a horror flick set amid a porn shoot, after all, and it heartily embraces the fact that people like to watch from the get-go. Swaggering producer Wayne (Martin Henderson, The Gloaming), aspiring starlet Maxine Minx (Mia Goth, Emma), old-pro fellow actors Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow, Pitch Perfect 3) and Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi, Don't Look Up), and arty director RJ (Owen Campbell, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and his girlfriend/sound recorder Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, doing triple horror duty in 2022 so far in Scream, Studio 666 and now this) are counting on that truth to catapult themselves to fame. Hailing from Houston and aroused at the idea of repeating Debbie Does Dallas' success, they're heading out on the road to quieter climes to make the skin flick they're staking their futures on, and they desperately hope there's an audience.
X is set in the 70s, as both the home-entertainment pornography market and big-screen slashers were beginning to blossom. As a result, it's similarly well aware that sex and death are cinema's traditional taboos, and that they'll always be linked. That's art imitating life, because sex begets life and life begets death, but rare is the recent horror movie that stresses the connection so explicitly yet playfully. Making those links is Ti West, the writer/director responsible for several indie horror gems over the past decade or so — see: cult favourites The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers — and thrusting a smart, savage and salacious delight towards his viewers here. Yes, he could've gone with The Texas Porn-Shoot Massacre for the feature's title, but he isn't remaking the obvious seminal piece of genre inspiration.
In this blood-splattered throwback, which looks like it could've been unearthed from its chosen decade in every frame (and was actually filmed in New Zealand rather than Texas), West pays homage to a time when flicks like this did pop up with frequency — while slyly commenting on what's changed to shift that scenario. He also explores the process of filmmaking, of putting both sex and death on-screen, and the conversation around both, all while his characters decamp to a quiet guesthouse on a remote property where they start making the film-within-the-film that is The Farmer's Daughter. Upon arrival, gun-toting, televangelist-watching, pitchfork-wielding owner Howard (Stephen Ure, Mortal Engines) is instantly unfriendly. Wayne hasn't told him why they're really there, but he's soon snooping around to see for himself. Also keen on watching the bumping 'n' grinding is Howard's ailing wife Pearl, who he warns his guests to stay away from, but is drawn to the flesh on show.
There's a genius stroke of casting in X that deserves discovering while watching, and speaks to one of the movie's other thematic obsessions. As West ponders the heyday of the type of flick he's making — and the picture within it as well — he contemplates what kinds of bodies we fetishise and find horrific. Desire and shame are flipsides of the same coin, and Pearl's lust towards her young and virile visitors contrasts with Maxine's insecurity, too, although the latter remains determined to use nature's gifts to shoot her shot. X doesn't always cut especially deep, but its musings on commodifying and worshipping youth and beauty still pierce, particularly when aided by such a committed and compelling turn by Goth, charismatic work from Henderson, Mescudi and Snow, and a crucial spurt of slipperiness from Ortega. That said, nothing carves as forcefully and gleefully as the film's many expertly staged death scenes. Knocking its pretty young things (and in Wayne's case, a tad older) off one by one, X revels in and relishes the art of depicting movie's kills.
In fact, that depictions of erotica and mortality can be art is another of the film's fascinations. Viewers watch the two out of curiosity, titillation, and a mix of shock and allure, but find far more in porn and horror when they're executed with exacting eyes. Accordingly, as shot by West's frequent cinematographer Eliot Rockett — an alum of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers as well — X's atmospheric and textured imagery makes this point inherently in all of its retro-styled glory. Every element in the movie is meticulous about its timeframe, right down to Maxine's Linda Lovelace-esque appearance, and never in the service of mere nostalgia. West's love of slow-burn horror setups also plays an influential part, teasing things out before the army of money shots. So too does his knowledge that whatever his audience imagines in their head will always be more shocking than what he commits to celluloid — yes, even with ample amounts of guts still strewn all over the place in the second half, and often.
A pivotal moment about a third of the way through, and perhaps X's best, says plenty: in a lake by their cabin (because West eagerly nods to Friday the 13th also), Maxine swims while a snapping alligator closes in behind her. The film peers down on this scene patiently from above, basking in stillness as the mood turns tense, unsettling and terrifying — and serving up one helluva sight. In other words, West makes X a flick that viewers don't just want to peer at the sleaze and the nasty body count, or to see people get screwed in multiple ways, but because it's so smart, savvy and spectacularly staged while straddling and embracing that fine line between pleasure and pain. "We turn people on and that scares 'em," Bobby-Lynne says early, and it's a fitting mantra for the movie overall. And when it climaxes, it firmly leaves audiences wanting to watch more. In great post-viewing news, West has already shot a prequel called Pearl as part of a planned trilogy.