Ti West shoots his shot at creating a new cultural association with Don’t Fear the Reaper that’s not Christopher Walken demanding more cowbell.
In his first film since 2016’s In a Valley of Violence, and his first horror picture in almost a decade (the last one being the cult-based horror The Sacrament), Ti West brings it back to basics: sex, blood and cinema.
X is a film of extreme encounters, in every sense. Set in 1979, a makeshift family of porn performers make their way to a remote farmhouse in deep Texas which they’ve rented to serve as the setting of the porno they’re shooting, ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’. The rag-tag group is led by their sleazy exec producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), who has hired a creatively ambitious director R.J. (Owen Campbell) and his shy sound recordist girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega) to shoot a genuinely “good dirty movie”. Wayne intends to make bank, inspired by the success of 70s legendary porn picture Debbie Does Dallas, and his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth) intends to become a star. They’re joined by Vietnam vet Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) loves his porn job and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), who just wants to buy a house with a pool so she can sunbathe her talents. Once the on-camera sex is over, they’re a wholesome bunch, eating sandwiches and singing Fleetwood Mac songs acapella.
As soon as they pull into the farmhouse, though, they get on the nerves of the creepy owners, an elderly couple, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth, pulling double duty), who are simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to the horny bohemians. The tension between the two groups escalates into a gruesome and grimy final thirty minutes of stabbing, impaling and alligator chomping.
The premise is simple: hot young things getting slaughtered in a creaky old house. And that’s enough. X shares the DNA of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) more than the recent sequel does. In his introduction to A24’s newsletter on the film, he wrote about his respect for both porn and horror filmmaking, “two forms of lowbrow entertainment that could be made independently outside of the traditional Hollywood studio system.” The slashers of the seventies created a visual language that we’re still emulating today, using the limitations of independent filmmaking as a springboard for their creativity.
West doesn’t just ape the style of independent 70s filmmaking but adds a bit of contemporary flavour. The editing here pulls some unconventional tricks. There are wild juxtapositions and screen wipes and split-screens that pull us out of a sense of false security slashers usually lull the audience into. There are quiet moments of tension that genuinely make you squirm in anticipation and appreciation for the artful framing by West’s regular cinematographer Elliott Rockett.
The dread is always there, but the violence doesn’t kick in til we’re already invested and comfortable with the characters. Mia Goth’s double-duty performance as the ambitious sex starlet Maxine and the frustrated old Pearl is intense: she’s dreamy and determined as Maxine and intensely creepy as Pearl,