Horror and pornography had a lot in common in the 1970s. Both were types of films that could be made cheaply and independently. Both were decried by conservative forces, yet undeniably popular with a percentage of the American public. And both had people working within them who wanted to elevate the genre into something more. Director Ti West (House of the Devil) tackles those connections and more with X, his bold, enthralling new film that's sort of like Debbie Does Dallas-meets-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with an arthouse twist and a heaping of dark humor.
It's 1979, and a group of young people are heading out to make a pornographic movie for the burgeoning home video market. Producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) has put the whole thing together. His coke-snorting girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth) will star alongside stripper Bobby-Lyne (Brittany Snow) and stud Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi). Directing the picture is RJ (Owen Campell), an aspiring filmmaker with visions of elevating this enterprise into something both erotic and artistic. RJ's wholesome girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) tags along to help with sound.
Wayne has rented the guest house at an old Texas farm to shoot the picture. The elderly owner, Howard (Stephen Ure), has no clue that's what these young punks have come for. We sense from his surly manner that he surely would not approve. As soon as he's not looking, Jackson is getting it on with Bobby-Lyne and Maxine as RJ's camera rolls. When Howard and his wife Pearl end up catching glimpses of the action, the movie-makers suddenly have very good reason to fear for their lives.
X is a savvy movie because it delivers sexual content, nudity, and graphic violence, all in a package that's made with a high level of intelligence. In other words, it delivers on both the titillation and artistic levels that RJ is aiming for. West is, in effect, pointing out that it isn't explicit content that offends people, it's the way that content is utilized. Or, as Roger Ebert famously said, “it's not what a film is about, but how it is about it.” He's having fun delving into exploitative material, then wrapping it up in a story that actually has something to say about such material. Chief among his subversions of our expectations is making the pornographers the heroes of his story. We actively root for them over the old couple with the “traditional” morals.
Many themes factor into the story: the impact of sexual repression; the clash between progressive values of the young and conservative values of older generations; the undeniable allure of boundary-pushing material; the tendency to blame horror and porn for the world's ills, rather than recognizing that art imitates life; and the often hypocritical evangelical response to onscreen sex and violence. That may seem like a lot for one movie to tackle, yet the marvel of X is how seamlessly West weaves them all together, without sacrificing entertainment value.
And yes, there is entertainment in spades. All the actors are fantastic playing sex-positive characters we really grow to like, despite whatever our feelings on porn may be. (Mia Goth deserves extra credit for a reason I'll allow you to discover for yourself.) The “kills” are expertly staged, with West delivering them in ways we don't anticipate. Era-appropriate pop songs effectively punctuate the soundtrack. Eliot Rockett's cinematography captures that beautifully grungy look of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Moments where the film goes for a joke hit the bullseye. From the A24 logo at the beginning to the enticing post-credits surprise, the movie is a lot of fun.
Ti West has made an affectionate homage to a unique time in cinema history, when the ambition of the 1970s was so pervasive that it spread out to genres historically viewed as “disreputable.” If you remember that time, X is a fond look back at that wonderfully unusual moment. If you weren't there, it might just make you wish you had been.
out of four
X is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.