warning: the following review contains minor spoilers
The filmmaking process can be a real killer. Anyone who has ever worked a day on set of a film knows the magic isn’t always there, but hopefully passion and a great group people can come together to create something wonderful. This applies to all filmmaking genres, so yes even pornography falls into that category. During the 1970’s when the low budget craze was beginning to take on Hollywood outlier filmmakers saw an opportunity to make art that involved (in their mind) a good story but most importantly the chance to watch people have sex on camera. This is where the latest and glorious wild ride from Ti West begins. This is his exploration of sex, depravity and the horrors that can come from repressing our desires. Yes, it is set in Texas, and yes it takes place during the 70’s (1979 to be exact) but that does not mean West spends the entire time trying to homage Texas Chainsaw Massacre. No, unlike other filmmakers West knows not to recreate a masterpiece, but instead he allows his film to go a unique route that subverts tropes that have plagued the “backwoods horror” genre for too long. Much like his characters West wants to create a film that feels greater than it looks on paper, and of course give the people a bloody and sexy thrill.
Maxine (Mia Goth) knows she is a star. In fact, what she truly wants to be is a sex symbol. As she snorts a line of coke in the dressing room of the go-go dancing club, she works at she makes it perfectly clear that while she may have confidence her past life never made her feel such a way. Maxine and her boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson) set out to make the next great porno and prove the genre can be seen and respected in a bigger light. Their stars include blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow in a career best) and her boyfriend Jackson (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi). Wayne’s way to make his film more artistic is through film student RJ (Owen Campbell) who dreams of making the next avant-garde and he brings along his quiet and observant girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). One of the most exciting parts of this film is the entire cast’s ability to truly feel like a gang of misfits excited to make great art. Anyone who has ever grabbed their friends and shot a super 8 film or even something on their phones instantly feels at home. It must also be said that none of the characters are performed in a mocking sense. Bobby Lynne is not just the pretty blonde, nor is RJ just a stand in for every film bro. No each actor plays them as someone who truly loves making films and believes with hard work they can succeed. This is a horror film though so obviously that desire is about to hit some major speed bumps.
Location is everything, especially if you want to bring in authenticity and that is why Wayne believes he has found the perfect farm to shoot their porno appropriately titled “Farmer’s Daughters.” Like any horror film it is clear that this isn’t the safest place, and it doesn’t help that the owner Howard (Stephen Ure) greets them at the door with a shotgun. Howard an older man is here to represent all the older generations that refuses to acknowledge the growing change in the world as well as the constant fear and anger that is imposed on younger generations. Howard’s home is falling apart and a minister on the television preaches sermons of how the wicked and sinful will pay. It’s familiar territory, but West really plays a respectful hand at looking at sexuality and the ignorance that sometimes others thrust upon it. Credit to Brittany Snow who is able to play out Bobby-Lynne’s sex scene as a moment of commanding power. There is never a question of who is really in control. This also allows for one of the film’s more calm and strongest moments involving a discussion about the separation of sex, work and love. It is also another excellent example of how West shows that a great film crew can always find ways to create open discussion and respect for one another.
Even before anything major goes wrong for the crew, West and his DP Eliot Rockett have created a wonderful sense of dread that is cut between some humorous porno filmmaking. The film is not a horror comedy, but it never hides behind the fact that murder is easy to wash down with some laughs here and there. But when Lorraine wants to be in the film things quickly change. The joy RJ got from making a porno now becomes his own nightmare in having to watch his girlfriend have sex with a complete stranger. The film can’t just change in the middle RJ argues, but little does he know he is in a horror film of his own and things are about to greatly change. No major spoilers on what happens next, but it must be said that the film’s bloody second half is as intense as it gets. West delivers some truly graphic kills, but never for shock value but instead a realism that comes with using house hold items as murder weapons. It also helps that his female characters get more screen time than most do in these kinds of films. Many of the film’s largest and most terrifying setups involve Goth, Snow an Ortega trying to uncover the mystery at hand while the men run around naked and afraid. West and Rockett stage these moments with less jump scares but instead wide shots that allow for moments of terror to play out longer than expected.
Many films like to brag about being on the edge of your seat suspenseful, but X is the only one in recent years that lives up to its promise. This is watch through your eyes anxiety. You will tense up as each character is given a respectful amount of time to face off against the evils that await them. But even amongst all the evil, the biggest surprise comes from (minor spoiler warning!) the endearing moments between the film’s “villains.” The purpose behind the murders isn’t justified, but it is certainly given enough time to understand the reasoning. This is West’s best use of taking the familiar and turning it upside down. In a time where even “elevated horror” is becoming too familiar it is great to see that the biggest surprise came from a “slasher” film; a genre many claim to be dead. There comes great comfort in knowing there is a filmmaker out there who continuously switches up the game. Someone with the desire to explore exactly what film can be with absolute passion and respect. After all that is what holds a film together, the people behind it who give all their love to the project, no matter the bloody cost.
X will be released in theaters March 18