Ti West’s best films have explored the tension between old and new; his one-two breakthroughs House of the Devil and The Innkeepers were steeped in the form and technique of horror subgenres from decades past but executed with a skillful, contemporary sensibility. His new film, Xembraces that idea more literally and more confidently — and may be his most crowd-pleasing to date, at least for folks who like watching characters get dismembered by one another.
The story of a group of filmmakers who encounter more than they bargain for during an adult film shoot, West’s latest exploits two familiar scenarios simultaneously while offering a rejoinder to the moralistic gender and sexual stereotypes that defined older horror scenarios. Shellacked in blue eye shadow, feathered hair and a gallon of lip gloss, Mia Goth commands the superstar adulation that her character craves, while a supporting cast including Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Jenna Ortega and Owen Campbell navigate both low-budget pornography and backwoods terror.
Gothic (Suspiria ’18) plays Maxine, a young pole dancer who agrees to star in an adult film “executive produced” by her fiancée Wayne (Henderson, doing a fine Matthew McConaughey impersonation) and costarring her colleague Bobby-Lynne (Snow) and Bobby-Lynne’s veteran boyfriend Jackson (Mescudi). Enlisting an over-ambitious young filmmaker named RJ (Campbell) to direct and his mousy girlfriend Lorraine (Ortega) to run the sound equipment, Wayne piles the group into a van and heads for a remote farm outside of Houston to shoot Maxine’s star-making masterpiece.
When they arrive at the farm, its octogenarian caretaker Howard (Stephen Ure) warns them not to disturb his reclusive wife Pearl, who he says is unwell. Despite their best efforts to follow Howard’s edict, the actors — and especially Maxine — increasingly begin to feel the presence of the rural homeowners, whose reaction to the group’s lack of inhibitions strikes an uneasy balance between repulsion and titillation, prompting them to consider whether to stop the shoot or press on in the face of their hosts’ disapproval.
X is like a turducken of overplayed storytelling tropes — in the porn movie, the traveling salesman who encounters a farmer’s buxom daughters after his car breaks down, and in the actual movie, a group of oversexed young people who venture out to a remote location and start poking around where they shouldn’t. But West possesses a unique ability to utilize the rhythms of a familiar narrative or stylistic blueprint and contemporize them so that they don’t feel like a retread of the films that came before. Here he exploits the audience’s knowledge of sex travelogues and hillbilly horror to first make them laugh and then undermine their expectations.
While Maxine and the other actors not only understand but embrace the undertaking of making a porn movie, their director RJ repeatedly aims to make something more artistic, which can be as much of a trap as a noble goal. RJ thinks he’s better than the movie that he’s making — an attitude that has brought low a lot of folks who delved into genre filmmaking for a fast buck — but he quickly discovers he’s neither as imaginative nor as liberated as he thinks. Sometimes, leaning into expectations is the way to get the best results, and in both porn and horror, money shots are more meaningful when the filmmaker gives audiences what they want, then plays around with an inventive way to do it. This is precisely the approach that West has taken in his films, delivering the shock and terror that viewers are waiting for while tossing in some surprises to throw them off balance. His kills possess gleeful, winking indulgences of style, such as blood splatter painting an illuminating pair of headlights red, that serve both as punch lines and protectors of the atmosphere he’s created in the build up to those moments.
With her button nose, freckles and roller disco style, Goth feels perfectly cast as a ’70s porn starlet, and as in Suspiria, the actress continues to lend an effortless complexity to characters that don’t necessarily need it. She and Snow amplify West’s respectful depiction of their, uh, characters’ vocational exposure by exuding not just a fearlessness but almost a mundane comfort with their bodies that too many films that fictionalize porn (or quite frankly elect to include nude scenes) fail to capture . Both actresses embrace an empowered and sex-positive attitude that’s mirrored by the film. And while (spoiler alert) a number of the characters do end up on the business end of some barnyard tools, X isn’t interested in punishing them for their sexuality, Friday the 13thth style.
Conversely, West creates counterparts in Howard and Pearl who are more fully realized than most horror “antagonists.” He doesn’t go as far as trying to make us sympathize with them (at least not as much as with the younger characters), but he presents their perspective in a vaguely empathetic way, even if they happen to express it more homicidally. And West actually does aspire to explore some concepts that are deeper and more complicated than survival or having sex on film. In particular, he examines the way that youth in others seems to bring out the feeling and impact of age in ourselves, not to mention how we resist or respond to that when it happens.
From an opening shot framed like a 16mm film gate to the blaring red title card that resembles the MPAA’s ratings system, West bakes an orgy of 1970s cultural ephemera into a scrappy American International Pictures-era visual look that conjures everything from Deep Throat to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and all of the attendant sensations that come with them. If he errs on the side of obviousness by needle-dropping Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” West otherwise assembles a bulletproof list of immediately-evocative ’70s AM radio classics for its soundtrack, while Goth’s overalls and Snow’s rust- colored romper immediately evokes the likes of Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver gold Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings.
But ultimately that aesthetic is an act of subterfuge, just like the conventions of the two stories being told: while you’re languishing in the performances and period detail, West is sneaking up to pull the rug out from beneath you, or to raze some outdated cliche. X is bloody, ballsy fun.