The Polygon team is reporting in from the 2022 media expo SXSW, with a look at the next wave of upcoming independent releases in sci-fi, horror, and documentary film.
The House of the Devil director Ti West never left horror. It’s been nearly a decade since his last horror movie, The Sacrament, but he’s stayed busy in horror TV, directing episodes of Scream: The TV Series, The Exorcist, Them, and more. He returns to his big-screen roots with X, a deliciously gory, delightfully funny homage to 1970s indie filmmaking that lures viewers into a false sense of security with a fun hangout movie, then unleashes all hell on the screen. By the time the credits roll, it makes sense that A24 would confirm this as the distribution house’s first horror franchise.
In 1979, strip-club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson) decides to gather a group of friends, employees, and a couple of idealistic filmmaking-enthusiast tagalongs to shoot a porn film that will make them all famous. There’s Wayne’s girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lane (Brittany Snow), and Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), who will star in the film. Of course, this won’t be just any old porn film. As writer, director, editor, and cinematographer R.J. (Owen Campbell) explains, he’s here to prove that it’s “possible to make a good dirty movie.” He’s ready to employ avant-garde techniques and everything, and he’s brought along his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) as boom-mic operator. Of course, given that this is a ragtag production, corners are cut — most notably, the cast and crew are staying at a remote farmhouse owned by an elderly couple who are supposedly unaware of what they’re planning to do. Soon enough, bodies start dropping.
Though the premise of a porn shoot turning into a horror show could easily result in a schlocky parody, Ti West has more in mind. The adult-film angle serves two purposes — it puts a meta spin on the practically mandatory nudity and adult content of R-rated slasher films, and it uses the adult industry to speak about indie filmmaking at large. The first half of the film is a love letter to independent filmmaking, to the satisfactions of grabbing a group of like-minded friends and a camera, and heading to a remote location to make movies. At the Q&A following the film’s SXSW premiere, Ti West spoke about the similarities between horror and porn in the 1970s — specifically, the desire to break free from studio systems and make a name for yourself, with nothing in hand but a good idea.
Given that this is a horror film about a group of young people in Texas, there are clear homages to Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, especially in the beginning, where Westt is following a group of friends having a good time, unaware of the carnage waiting for them. West carefully waits to unveil the carnage, choosing to focus on character work and setting a creepy mood through long takes and ominous cutaways. (The A24 way!) The story isn’t all gloom and doom — West is clearly having a ball making this an enjoyable comedy, too. Double entendres and crude jokes fill the first half of the film, like the team’s van reading “Plowing Services.” Even when the killings begin, most of them have a lighthearted tone.
This is in no small part due to the cast, especially Brittany Snow, whose turn as a wannabe porn star makes for a hilarious return to horror for the actress. Meanwhile, Mescudi does an impressive job as the guy full of bravado and confidence, a veteran who fears nothing, even when he should. Still, this is Mia Goth’s movie: She pulls double duty as both the lead character and as house owner Pearl, subject of a planned spinoff prequel. Goth infuses both characters with a burning desire to obtain fame, and a deep fear of losing it. Even when buried under tons of makeup, her performance shines through.
As funny as X gets at times, whoever, it’s just as effective at providing scares as it is at provoking laughs. Once the kills begin, West unleashes heavy gore and entertaining death scenes, enhanced by effective, novel editing that West and his co-editor David Kashevaroff use to enhance the scares, or create new ones. From smash cuts and juxtapositions to cutting away from a kill to an unrelated scene to screen wipes and split-screens, X makes for an unpredictable experience.
Sadly, as great as the makeup is, it follows the recent unfortunate trope of villainizing the elderly, implying that aging naturally turns people into vicious villains. Get ready for gratuitous scenes of naked elderly people, designed to suggest that aging is gross and scary.
Tired stereotypes aside, though, West delivers a crowd-pleasing return to horror that’s a love letter to the genre without becoming a parody. This is no Texas Chain Saw Massacre rip-off, but it is still the best Texas Chain Saw Massacre film of the year. Ti West is back — may he not leave us again anytime soon.
X will open in theaters on March 18.