Dying to Show You a Good Time.
In a deliberate echo of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), horror specialist Ti West, The Innkeepers (2011), offers us this set up: it’s 1979, and a vanful of attractive young people are road-tripping across Texas when they run afoul of the inhabitants of a remote farmhouse.
The wrinkle is that these all-American youngsters are out in the boondocks to shoot a porno movie. Wayne (Martin Henderson) is a strip club impresario who thinks that his young girlfriend and star performer, Maxine Minx (a typically fearless Mia Goth), has what it takes to bring in some of that Debbie Does Dallas money. Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) is his hedonistic second lead. Jackson Hole (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) is his leading man, a Vietnam veteran who’s given himself over to pleasure after his time in the shit. RJ (Owen Campbell) is the writer and director, convinced he can make a porno with real narrative and thematic substance. Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) is his girlfriend and sound recordist, who is uncomfortable with the overt sexuality of the company.
These horny entrepreneurs decamp to a remote farm where they’ve rented the guest house to film their opus, The Farmer’s Daughters, but the old couple who own the joint are suspicious to the point of hostility, and … that’s all the plot that’s fit to print without getting into some fun surprises best left to the viewer to discover. Not twists, exactly, but choices and themes that emerge over the course of what is, for horror fans, an absolute treat: a funny, sexy, gory, and scary romp through the ’70s genre hinterlands that director West previously mined for 2009’s The House of the Devil.
He’s not retreading old ground, though, more refining an idea. With X, West demonstrates an impressive degree of genre savviness. Although drawing on the seminal slashers of the ‘70s, X isn’t just an act of self-conscious pastiche, and heck, even if it was, it’s at least looking at a fairly unexplored area, the intersection of the porn and horror industries at the time.
Here West is noting that both are a kind of outsider art, looked down upon by polite society, the province of iconoclastic dreamers and visionaries — or people deluded enough to think they’re dreamers and visionaries, you be the judge. Talent toiling in both genres sometimes crossed from one to the other — legendary horror auteur Wes Craven got his start in the film industry directing hardcore flicks, and porn starlet Marilyn Chambers was the lead in David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977). In X, the counterpoint to this counterculture manifests as a fundamentalist television program that crops up in the background from time to time, its fire-and-brimstone rantings marking the extreme conservative alternative to the extreme permissiveness espoused by our protagonists. It’s clear whose side we’re meant to be on in this culture war.
This is still a horror movie, though, and one of the most deeply entrenched tropes of the genre is that sex equals death, and those who fuck are doomed to be fileted. X delivers on this promise — how could it not? — but in a way that largely strips it of its puritanical underpinnings. It’s a tricky balancing act, here performed superbly: we’re both sympathetic to our characters and keen to see them julienned in a way that ups our investment, our anxiety, and our catharsis when the bodies start hitting the floor.
And boy, do they — the carnage on display is impressive, both in terms of ferocity and variety. West isn’t just firing the blood hose at the camera and hoping for a reaction, either; his ability to build tension is absolutely superb. The inventiveness on display is really impressive — the kills are bloody as hell and often wince-inducing in their mean cruelty, but there’s a kind of playful edge to them, a frisson of fun.
There’s serious thematic work going on under the skin, too, mainly in the way the film talks about bodies and aging and sexuality, the way we objectify and even commodify others, the way we can see someone else as an object of envy or a mere vehicle for our own pleasure — sometimes both at the same time. It’s confronting at times; as the audience, we’re already in a voyeuristic position in regards to the onscreen action, and West asks us to question our role as such and our motives for claiming that position. We are, after all, getting our kicks from watching these beautiful young people screw and die, but everyone involved is a willing participant, and nobody’s actually getting hurt. Still, our desire to watch this kind of material surely speaks to some kind of sadistic streak in our makeup, even if it’s sublimated and indulged in safe ways. West explores this area carefully but lightly; we’re never navel-gazing for too long before something like Chekhov’s alligator swims into view (there’s an alligator-filled pond on the property, and West does not waste it).
I can’t see any horror fan not having an absolute blast with X — it’s precision-engineered to appeal to genre tragics by an avowed genre tragic, honoring the history of the form without merely retreading it. For those less steeped in the field, this is still a smart, fun, brilliantly bloody slasher. What more could you want?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson