In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast find themselves fighting for their lives.
Ti West (The House of the Devil) delivers a raucous horror that brings the genre back to its raw, fleshy basics. Despite wearing its horror influences on its sleeve, this tale of a 1979 Texas porn shoot gone wrong is meticulously well crafted and laugh out loud funny.
A movie best enjoyed when you don’t know how mad the plot becomes, there’s no doubt this adult film production ends in bloodshed as the opening shot shows the bloody aftermath of a farmhouse murder, and cowboy boot-wearing cops at a loss to explain what happened to the victim (sheets concealing who does and doesn’t make it out alive).
The film then rewinds 24-hours to meet the stars and crew of X: Maxine (Mia Goth) an adult actress with dreams of becoming a household name, who doesn’t say much but her coy eyes outlined with blue shadow says everything we need to know; and cocky executive producer Wayne (Virgin River’s Martin Henderson channelling Owen Wilson), who’s as smarmy and one would expect a pornographer to be. The first interaction between Wayne and his girlfriend, Maxine, quickly lets audiences into their relationship and their aspirations of fame. She wants to be as big as Lynda Carter, and he left his wife for the former stripper.
We meet the rest of the crew in the back of a van crudely nicknamed ‘The Plowing Service’, on the road to shoot their revolutionary porno that’ll make them household names. The other characters aren’t as richly written as Maxine and Wayne, but saved by magnetic performance and striking looks. There’s suave male talent and Vietnam war veteran Jackson (Kid Cudi), who has little do, other than shoot sex scenes and talk about his bedroom talents; and his co-performer and sometime girlfriend Bobby-Lynee (a scene-stealing Brittany Snow), who manages to inject a sultry irreverence into every line. It’s a shame these two likeable actors don’t get given enough to do, especially as Snow steals every scene she’s in as 1970s porn fantasy version of Marilyn Monroe
The team’s completed by awkward director RJ (Owen Campbell), who believes he is making an art-house masterpiece, shooting everything like it’s a piece of French New Wave cinema. He’s assisted by his cross-wearing girlfriend Lorraine (Scream’s Jenna Ortega), who holds the mic and observes this new world of debauchery. The horror sadly kicks off just as she starts to come out of her shell…
Despite graphic scenes where they film a porno in the style of Debbie Does Dallas (1978), X never feels graphic or smutty. West is smart and self-aware enough to disguise an exploration into femininity and sex positivity through the lens of a trashy exploitation film. Deep down, X is a deconstruction of an adult film and horror’s obsession with blending its own lines with smut.
These early scenes have a hint of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to it. Both have the same level of brutal gore but it’s the broken people at the core of the violence that really connects the two horrors. A rambling preacher haunts the group, playing in the background to the farmhouse the violence takes place in, and the convenience store they stop at on the way. It’s a bit heavy-handed but it sets the sinister tone.
As soon as they arrive at the farmhouse the group’s met by American Gothic-style creepy old owners (Stephen Ure and Mia Goth in a second role). The tension between the two groups escalates in ways audiences won’t be able to imagine. Whether the twist works is questionable, but you’ll certainly remember it.
It takes a while to get to the violence, so the opening scene only makes it harder to be patient. X actually takes its time developing its characters and themes, and there are many genuinely funny moments. There are also frequent times when the film cuts between three scenes, all visually distinct from each other. It’s unsettling because it feels so wrong and jarring. There’s also wild juxtaposition, split screens, and screen wipes that make X seem more amateur than it really is.
West lets scenes play out longer than they should, hoping horror-savvy fans will gradually let their guard down. You’ll be expecting certain deaths and jump scares that just won’t come. And despite the rather in your face plot, there are quiet moments of incredibly tension that’ll make you squirm, all artfully framed by cinematographer Elliott Rockett and soundtracked by Chelsea Wolfe.
X has no interest in making any sweeping statement about gender, sexuality, or age. Instead, it strips slasher horror down to its core and reminds us of what it was about the genre that made us love it. It’s funny, self-aware, and it’s unashamedly gory.
USA | 2022 | 105 MINUTES| 1.90:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Ti West.
starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, Scott Mescudi.