A film review by Craig J. Koban April 26, 2022

X jjj

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 Dentler

Written 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. 

Because their 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.   

Again, the 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. 

Still, I admired this film's throw caution to the wind approach here as a rough necked period horror thriller, and one that's enthusiastically grotesque and tongue in cheek in equal measure (that's a hard dichotomy to pull off).  X is a throwback picture through and through and the kind of picture that would have most likely occupied midnight screenings at low-brow drive-ins over forty years ago.  Everything from the genre kitchen sink is tossed at viewers - copious nudity, sex, scatological humor, and, of course, nightmare fuel inducing maniacs disposing of people - but West's unbridled enthusiasm for this material simmers through.  When I finished my screening I was appreciative of what he was doing here, although I don't think the resulting effort was as smart or subversive as it easily could have been.  Having said that, I enjoyed X a far cry more than most recent horror thrillers that seem to dutifully coast by on autopilot and feel made in assembly line factories.  X is assembled from spare part ingredients, but doesn't taste like stale leftovers.  

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