I don’t like V/H/S. I’ve been very clear on this point. I hated sitting through that film so much that it turned me away from found footage horror altogether. I hated the nauseating shaky-cam, I hated the unsympathetic characters, I hated every single story in that whole godforsaken anthology.
Even so, I will readily admit that a great deal of talent went into making that picture (Indeed, that waste of talent and potential is another huge part of why I hate that film so much.), and a number of the filmmakers involved have gone on to noteworthy careers. Adam Wingard is perhaps the most famous example, later directing a respectable Blair Witch sequel (no small accomplishment, given the history of that franchise) on his way to the serviceable Godzilla vs. Kong. We’ve also got David Bruckner, who went on to an impressive feature directing debut with The Night House on his way to helming an upcoming Hellraiser reboot.
And now we’ve got Ti West, here delivering another retro-tinged horror film with X. I’m happy to report that it’s not a found footage movie, though it is adjacent to the concept — Set in the ’70s, a crew of amateur pornographers set up shop in a barnhouse to shoot a porno, the conservative farmowners catch wind of the project, weird shit happens, and we’re off to the races. In theory, it’s a simple and straightforward premise that makes premium use of that most tried-and-true cinematic combo, gore and tits.
In execution, the combo turns out to be more than a bit imbalanced. Let’s set the stage in 1979, out in Bumfuck, TX, and meet our victim pool.
- Our de facto protagonist is Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a stripper with big dreams of superstardom as a worldwide sex symbol. And she’s a cocaine addict, natch.
- Her boyfriend/employer is Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson), also the writer/producer of The Farmer’s Daughters, a porn film he’s making to cash in on the nascent home video craze.
- Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) is the buxom blonde diva headlining the movie.
- Jackson Hole (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, also an exec producer through his Mad Solar Productions shingle) is a Vietnam veteran, here serving as the male pornographic talent.
- RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell) is the overqualified cinephile who’s only slumming it as a cameraman/director for porno films until he can earn a more legitimate career.
- Last but not least is RJ’s girlfriend (Lorraine, played by Jenna Ortega), a shy and quiet girl here operating the boom mic.
Predictably, the porn shoots are sexy in that campy kind of ’70s porno style. But surprisingly, what really makes them work is the inclusion of Lorraine. The more buttoned-up character provides a convenient sounding board for the other characters, allowing them to make statements about life and work in the porn industry. The film has a lot to say about how porn can be empowering, how it’s really not that different from any other kind of cinema, how society is flagrantly hypocritical and outright harmful in its condemnation of sex work, and so on.
But then we cross the hour mark. This is when the bodies start dropping in earnest, and it’s also where we start running into problems.
To be entirely clear, the scares are beautifully presented. Even with the fake-outs and jump scares all through that first hour, they help to set up later scares and keep up the tension. That said, the editing is… um, scattershot. It works beautifully in the context of each individual scene, but then Ti West tries to get clever with the intercuts and the parallels between different scenes. It gets obnoxious really fast.
More importantly, there’s the matter of Howard and Pearl (respectively played by Stephen Ure and a double-cast Mia Goth), the married couple who own the farm where this all takes place. A couple of mentally deficient old people, so withered and fragile that a stiff breeze could probably blow them over. And these are our antagonists.
On one hand, these two are shut-ins with nothing better to do than listen to televangelists scream all day about how the world is going to hell because of perverts, drug dealers, and so on. But at the same time, Howard and Pearl are madly jealous of the tenants who are still young and attractive. Pearl wants to recapture the beauty and sex appeal she had as a younger woman, Howard wants to bang a woman without the risk of his heart giving out, and the both of them are taking out their sexual frustrations on our victim pool.
To be sure, there is absolutely a film to be made about this cruel double standard, in which young people are deemed as desirable and virile, as if older people can’t be attractive or sexually viable. As a generational conflict, it makes a lot of sense. But as a motive to commit mass murder — and in a slasher film with the older folks portrayed as literal monsters — that’s perilously thin. It also doesn’t help that the sex-crazed motivation goes directly against the evangelical motivation. I’m sure that hypocrisy is the point, but the disconnect is there all the same.
Speaking of which, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the prequel film that goes into the origins of our elderly couple, complete with Mia Goth reprising Pearl. The two films were shot back-to-back and there’s no release date for Pearl yet, but you can see a teaser for it if you sit through the credits. I digress.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably wondering how two old people with bones like freaking toothpicks could plausibly slaughter six young people healthy and strong enough to be porn stars. Well, the short answer is that our six porn stars are goddamn idiots. I know that watching unsympathetic morons get slaughtered is part of the genre’s appeal, and I’m keenly aware that half the cast is comprised of the exact same horny, self-centered jerks who’d be the first to die in any other slasher flick. Even so, I don’t find the plot anywhere near as enjoyable with the knowledge that I’m supposed to sympathize with these poor fools too stupid to live.
Moreover, the slasher genre has always been very clear in portraying sex-crazed victims as immoral and unsympathetic, so we can find more enjoyment in watching them get killed off. That doesn’t work so well in this movie, which makes a great many impassioned statements in favor of sex workers just before killing them off for our enjoyment. Again, the morality comes off as contradictory. I’m sure the contradiction is supposed to be a comment on the hypocrisy of it all, but the filmmakers can’t square that circle.
On the other hand, X was very clearly built from the ground up as a tribute to mindless entertainment. It stands in defiant opposition to socially minded horror (like Jordan Peele’s recent work) and more heady “prestige horror” (pretty much anything else A24 has released) that have become so trendy these past few years. For better or worse, the film is a salute to pornography and slasher films, arguing that there is definitely a place for such lowbrow entertainment and we still need such brainless films. I can respect a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and goes for it full throttle with no apology. And even if the statements about moral hypocrisy were mishandled, it still registers as an intelligent film about stupid characters.
The bottom line is, this film is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a slasher flick about an amateur ’70s porno shoot, starring a ridiculously attractive cast getting nude and having sex before they get killed off screaming. If that sounds like the sort of thing you’d enjoy, or the sort of thing that would send you running out of the theater in disgust, you’re probably right.