X
(***)-VITO CARLI

"...finds clever ways to enliven and update a fairly formulaic plot enough to make it worthwhile..."

Mad Slasher Film That's a Cut Above the Rest

(042122) X is a strong and subversive Meta mad slasher/erotic film that was heavily influenced by the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Although the film never quite rises to the level of that classic, it never fails to be engaging and frightening plus it adds some interesting updates to the genre. Also, it effectively builds dramatic tension and some individual scenes are genuinely inspired.

There are also echoes of Paul Schrader’s underrated ‘70s film Hardcore because we eventually discover one of the characters who has entered the world of pornography is a preacher’s daughter rebelling against her dad. The crazy aged woman seems inspired at least partially by Mrs.Bates in Psycho and the film’s main theme is the agony and torture of aging.

The film is set in the 70’s, a decade in which porn film makers started making artier erotic films and some X films (like Debbie Does Dallas, Behind the Green Door, and Emmanuelle) were making it into the mainstream theatres. The director character played by Owen Campbell in this film (like the one in Boogie Night) is half convinced that he is making an Indy art film with French New wave influences, but he is fooling himself. He is in the smut business.

X is about a group of young people who go to a farm in a secluded part of Texas so they can shoot a porn film titled Farmer’s Daughters. The property is rented from a creepy older couple who always seem to be ominously spying on the film people in the background. As the terror builds, we see parts of the porn film which is genuinely erotic and often funny (but it never resembles art) within the horror film.

The film was made by Ty West, a gifted horror director who also did the marvelous retro horror, House of the Devil which featured the terrific Andy Warhol repertory actress, Mary Woronov (whom I interviewed). His next project, Pearl will be a prequel to X  was shot back-to-back with it. His films look old fashioned (House of the Dead was shot like a 70’s midnight film) and West is obviously enamored with film techniques associated with the past for instance many of his films feature split screen shots which were very popular in the 70s. I recall Medium Cool using them extensively.

The main female character, Maxine, is played by the freckled Portuguese actress, Mia Goth (full name: Mia Gypsy Mello da Silva Goth) who was also in Clair Dennis’s sci fi film, High Life (2018) as well as the horror dance remake of Suspiria (2018). Here she plays an ambitious porn actress who wants to rise to the top and always goes around proclaiming that she wants to finally get what she deserves.

There is an extremely riveting scene in which she goes skinning dipping and she is observed by both a local psycho while an alligator stalks her. This leaves the audience wondering which one will get her first or if she will just end up having sex with someone in the water. With the swamp setting, and the nude long shot, the sequence seems like it could have been in a Russ Meyer film.

Jenny Ortega is a frequently wide-eyed, girlish actress who is known for her work in such horror films as The Babysitter: Killer Queen (2020), Scream (2022) and the recent Dave Grohl vehicle: Studio 666 (2022) as well as the show: Jane the Virgin (2014-2019). Here she plays Loraine, a sound technician who is so meek and unassuming that everyone calls her “church mouse.” She shocks everyone (and horrifies her cinematographer boyfriend) when she asks to do a sex scene in the film, but she gets more than she bargained for. Her boyfriend, the geeky director is a hypocrite because he has no problems shooting other people having sex and making money off it, but he forbids his girlfriend from doing a scene. This is despite his free-spirited pronouncements, he is truly a reactionary, and his eyes she will no longer be a “good girl.”

Martin Henderson who was in The Ring (2002) as well as Grey’s Anatomy is Wayne Gilroy, the southern good old boy producer who does everything he can to keep the production together. With his boyish good looks, his cowboy hat and his habit of counseling people he reminded me of the character, Andy Travis on the old sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82).

Finally, Brittany Show (from Pitch Perfect and Harry’s Law) portrays, the playful blonde porn star who is in a relationship with an African American actor and tries to compartmentalize the love and sex aspects of her life. Scott Medescu portrays her somewhat vain but decent boyfriend who she often does sex scenes with. Except for their career they seem to be a fairly normal couple.

In the second half of the film, people begin to disappear and later on their bodies are found bloody and mutilated. While it is not too hard to figure out who the killers will be from the beginning, their motivations and reasons for killing are interesting and tragic.

In the end, the film transcends, updates, and improves upon its genre. The film has a split point of view because although many of the early scenes are shot replicating the traditional male gaze (which Laura Mulvey wrote about masterfully in her Hitchcock exploration, “The Pleasure of Looking and the Male Gaze in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo”) while some of the last part of the film is told from a female perspective and the tracking shots are often from a villainous female point of view.

Spoiler alert: Also, without giving too much of the plot away the film makes us question the traditional polarization between good girl and bad girl or virgins and whores, and audiences might be surprised that a surviving female is not a traditional mad slasher “last girl,” like in Jaimee Lee Curtis in Halloween or Vera Miles in Psycho.

X is like
Coda (an unlikely comparison) finds clever ways to enliven and update a fairly formulaic plot enough to make it worthwhile. Of course, I think that fans of old horror films will get the homage's and references to old films more and they will get more out of the film.
 

Directed & Written by:    Ti West
Starring:    Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson
Released:    031822 (USA)
Length:    106 minutes
Rating:    R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, gore,
 drug use, language and strong bloody violence
Available On:    At press time the film is still playing at some
 Chicago area theatres, but it is not available yet for
 streaming.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

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