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‘X’: Two Grindhouse Staples — Horror and Porn — Combined Into One Neo-Exploitation Classic

Ti West’s tribute to sex and violence at the movies will properly wallop your gag reflex, scare you witless — and, against all odds, breaks your heart

David Fear Mar 19, 2022

A24

Bloody. Brutal. Grungier than a big-city back alley and more guts-strewn than a slaughterhouse. This is how you like your slasher-flick horror, and trust is when we say Ti West has your back. Part of a young, hungry generation of horror auteurs weaned on the grindhouse canon, he’s dabbled in a number of dark, dingy subgenres, from quick ‘n’ dirty sequels (Cabin Fever 2) to the slow-burn supernatural (The Innkeepers) to neo-Seventiesploitation (the cult thriller The Sacrament). But go back to his best-in-show entry from 2009, The House of the Devil, and you’ll see he has a knack for paying homage to old staples of disreputable cinema without simply plagiarizing them. Part pomo final-girl scares and part vintage “Satanic Panic” nightmare, the movie proved you could still have your Caro syrup-slathered cake and splatter it, too. West wasn’t interested in giving viewers an academic thesis on primal-screen film history so much as engaging in a conversation with it while goosing and grossing you out. He could engage your crocodile brain and your cerebrum on the way to your gag reflex.

You can add “loins” and, surprisingly, “heart” to that corpus repertoire as well now. X casts a bloodshot eye back to the late 1970s, when that letter on a marquee was synonymous with both hardcore pornography and the sort of movies that prized shock over awe. It takes place outside of Houston, a stone’s throw away from the city Debbie did (that would be Dallas) and Leatherface’s old stomping ground, though the vibe is 100-percent Forty Deuce. A band of dirty-movie makers are heading out to the hinterlands of the Lone Star state, with the idea of making their own onanistic magnum opus: The Farmer’s Daughters, featuring two girls, one stud. The brains behind the operation is Wayne (Grey’s Anatomy veteran Martin Henderson), a cowboy who thinks he can capture adult-film lightning in a bottle by shooting out in the boondocks. His stars: the Seka-esque blonde Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow); her boyfriend Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), who could be the second coming of Johnnie Keyes; and Maxine (Mia Goth), a girl-next-door type and also Wayne’s fiancé. The bare-bones crew consists of a student (Owen Campbell) who wants to give the end result “a touch of the avant-garde, like they do in France,” and his romantic interest/reluctant assistant (Jenna Ortega).

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The location is a farm in the middle of nowhere, a place far from prying and prudish eyes. There’s just a few caveats to note, such as the presence of a nearby lake that may be home to predators; like Chekhov more or less said: “When you put an alligator on the mantle in Act One… ” Their host, a geriatric man named Howard (Stephen Ure), doesn’t take kindly to strangers, much less one producing filth and smut on his property. And then there’s the spectral presence of Howard’s wife, Pearl. She haunts the periphery, occasionally offering lemonade to her guests and generally lurking about. Once upon a time, she was a young beauty, way back “before the first war,” a dancer who felt like the world was her oyster. (The moniker is not a coincidence.) All these hot, nubile youngsters are stirring something inside her. Something that seemed to have left her so long ago, had gone so far away….

There will be blood and fucking, plus some backstage comedy, petty jealousies, the unwelcome changing of minds and an oddly moving sing-along to “Landslide” that accompanies some deft split-screen action. Film references? They’re here too, from a Psycho namedrop to a host of nods to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws, and every other cabin-in-the-woods scarefest. X isn’t exactly a pastiche, however, so much as an drive-in–cinema Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: Hey, you got your skin-flick sleaze in my Southern-fried fleapit slasher! Notions about the exploitative and empowering notions of pornography get floated around, as well as the ramifications of unleashing blasts of libidinous power upon the unsuspecting public. It’s so easy for that energy to turn homicidal. So many repressed urges, so little time.

You expect spilled guts and impalings and maybe a shotgun blast or three, as well as some slow zooms, oft-kilter compositions, a sense of pacing designed for the chilling of spines and squishy kills for the gorehound crowd — West has already proven that he can play old-timey genre exercise with the best of them. What jolts you out of a sense of complacency and scary-movie comfort zone, however, is how poignant he gets with the raw material. There is an emotional heft to what he’s doing amid all the red-hot naked bodies and still-warm cadavers, a sense of longing and the passing of time and the sensation that you aren’t, or haven’t, lived the life you believe you deserve. Horror is capable of pushing so many buttons. Breaking your heart, rather than removing one forcefully from a chest cavity, isn’t usually its modus operandi.

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It pays to be cryptic in regards to how West puts things in motion and the extremely unusual places X goes, even as it gives you both a) what you want and b) what you genuinely need. We can say that while Mia Goth has been impressive in the past, she ups her game substantially here and demonstrates why the title of “scream queen” should be considered an honor. The offbeat score by Chelsea Wolfe and Tyler Bates does an exceptional job of jogging your memory and darkening the mood. And there is a sequence right in the middle of this film — it involves a car’s headlight, arterial spray and a figure dancing in the night — that is so beautiful and terrifying and bliss-inducing that I have not been able to stop thinking about it for a week. You’d have to go back to the first few seasons of Hannibal to find something so simultaneously grotesque and swoon-worthy.

There are a handful of moments scattered throughout that balance sorrow with making your skin crawl, though nothing that approaches the heights of that set piece. Even the wink-nudge meta joke that acts as a final word on the proceedings somehow works in the movie’s favor. Come to West’s celebration of the movies’ darker underbelly for the adrenaline rush of sex and violence. Exit it having witnessed something that marks the spot where baser impulses meets artistry, in more ways than one.

From Rolling Stone US.

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