“Because it’s possible to make a good dirty movie.”
That is indeed the mission statement of Ti West’s new satiric slasher X. The conceit of the film sees a group of six people, in 1979, traveling to an unused guest house in the country to film a dirty movie. The group features a trio of couples: Actress Maxine & her producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), RJ and his prudish girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who handle the technical side, while the “cast” of the adult film is rounded out by lovers Bobby-Lynne and Jackson (Brittany Snow, KiD CuDi).
Maxine (Mia Goth) fashions herself as a star in the making, and Wayne repeatedly assures her as such. We’re introduced to her doing a line of coke and giving herself a pep talk in the mirror. As the gang is about to plan their shoot, Wayne tells her that she has “the X factor.” She plans to be a big celebrity, although I don’t know if pornography is the avenue that’s going to guarantee that. As they descend upon their shooting location, the group introduces themselves to the owner of the farm – the hapless Howard (Stephen Ure). The bloke barely even remembers that he agreed to rent out his guest house, and it doesn’t seem that’s he aware that Wayne intends to shoot a movie here. But as the day goes by, it’s Maxine who draws the attention of a mysterious character on the farm. What seems like maternal friendship may prove to be much more salacious than Maxine could ever anticipate.
What X does well is to marry the stigmas levied at both pornography and horror, particularly the slasher subgenre. Both are hugely profitable fields but rarely, if ever, earn any prestigious recognition. Yet, both genres played a part in advancing the medium of film in the 1970s. In that sense, the aptly titled X stands in to vouch for grindhouse features, exploitation/blaxploitation pictures, and all other kinds of B movie “trash.” However, the movie argues that it takes indelible craft to concoct an engaging tale on a shoestring budget, so even if the subject manner isn’t idyllic, it should still be applauded. The 70s were ripe with movies that changed cinema despite tiny production budgets, from The Last House on the Left (1972) to Halloween (1978). Included in that grouping, of course, is the cult classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). When our characters are driving to town, they encounter a cow on the side of the road with its insides cut open – a gruesome reference to the cattle farm scene early in Texas Chainsaw, while also acting as a sign for the danger to come.
Much of the movie is a homage to ‘Massacre, including X’s use of cinéma-vérité and its throwback 1970s cinematography. One of the more famous shots in ‘Massacre occurs when a young woman ominously approaches the Sawyer home while the camera captures her from a low angle. The camera seems to simultaneously shrink and stretch the space in front of us. West has his own striking images in mind, including a bird’s eye view of a character swimming in a lake, clueless to her impending danger. The lake swallows the screen, giving off feelings of serenity yet foreboding warning of the incoming terror. One of West’s most famous works is The House of the Devil (2009), it too a homage to the horror films of the 70s. But where X even exceeds that film is it goes beyond just style, crafting a narrative that makes us consider the power of filmmaking and how its visual language can make even the most unsavory or perverted of subjects enticing for an audience.
It is the character of RJ (Owen Campbell) who can be attributed to the quote at the beginning of this review, he the director charged with capturing the fictional movie’s sex scenes. He believes that just because it’s an adult film doesn’t mean it can’t be art. He even fashions his work as being “Avant-garde,” in tribute to his directorial idols. He’s like a younger Jack Horner from Boogie Nights (1997). But the movie’s philosophy about filmmaking bumps heads with its philosophy about real-world relationships. If it’s just a movie, then can anyone participate in these dirty films, regardless of their romantic ties? Maxine and Wayne certainly think so. RJ may disagree because, for him, it then ceases to be art and becomes real. The characters argue that you shouldn’t be offended by great art if it’s just giving the people what they want, thus casting the movie’s villains firmly into light.
The film sneers at anyone who looks down on the young female characters and their promiscuous ways. The movie’s motif is a live sermon, seen whenever a character turns on the television, and features a preacher condemning the sins of the youth. Why all of these TVs are in Black & White in 1979, I have no idea. Furthermore, how long is this church service, 24 hours? No matter what time of day a television is turned on, my man seems to still be on the same Bible passage.
The tension between the older generation that’s seeing their lives in the rearview, and their youthful and carefree counterparts make up the film’s conflict. West accentuates this neverending generational divide with some clever stunt casting, although it may take you a moment to figure out who’s pulling double duty. Taking a cue from John Carpenter’s interpretation of Halloween, in which Michael Myers and Laurie Strode both use phallic-coded weapons to release sexual tension, the use of a knife to convey sexual symbolism is even more apparent here.
By the movie’s end, X has established itself as one of the most engrossing celebrations of the slasher genre to date, while potentially becoming one of the great slashers period. Its characters feel authentic and memorable, its cinematography and editing superb, and West’s commentary feels relevant to the lives of the characters speaking it rather than convoluted and tacked on. Seemingly every major cast member gets a chance to steal a scene, with some of the standouts including Goth, Henderson, and some great chemistry between Snow and KiD CuDi. Jenna Ortega continues her inexplicable hot streak, which isn’t surprising because she’s great even when the movie isn’t (looking at you, Scream and The Babysitter 2). The film is in love with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there’s also a nice musical reference to Halloween. A soundtrack that includes Blue Oyster and Fleetwood Mac, in addition to the movie’s unnerving score, makes this a mood piece with the gore and suspense to match. In other words, it’s an awesome love letter to its genre, a gruesome tale of debauchery depicted with an artful hand.
Which begs the question, can art be good art if it’s dirty? X argues it can be, and I agree in a sense. The whole fascination with filmmaking as a medium is that a movie’s stylistic merit can elevate a story to its most palatable consumption. If the content of the story was all that mattered, then we might as well tackle every idea in documentary-style, prioritizing the transfer of information over immersion. X says to hell with that, honing in on uncomfortable truths – sex sells, and so does violence. Doubly so when it’s young people having the sex or involved in violence, done in style. Put it all together, and that’s the X factor. I don’t know if it’s great art, but it’s great entertainment.