Considered in isolation, X is okay. It can be a little phony & shallow in spurts, but it’s a decent enough slasher with novel themes & settings not usually explored in the genre. Considered in a larger scope, it’s frustratingly stagnant. It’s getting extremely tired watching so many modern horror movies borrow their authenticity from vintage grindhouse cinema instead of genuinely attempting something new & risky. Ti West directed his breakout calling-card movie House of the Devil thirteen long years ago, and he was already indulging this kind of 70s & 80s throwback aesthetic back then. Hell, Rob Zombie directed House of 1,000 Corpses two decades ago. There have certainly been better grindhouse throwbacks made since 2003, but I don’t know that there have been any transcendent triumphs that justify wallowing in that nostalgia swamp for this long instead of attempting something freshly upsetting. Even when X excels in its go-for-broke moments of icky discomfort, I find myself questioning why this filmmaking mode is always set in the 70s or 80s now and buried under so many retro style markers. It feels stuck, as if West and his contemporaries are outright afraid of modern settings & new tones, using disreputable vintage subgenres as a stylistic, contextual crutch.
Worse, X is outright condescending to one of the drive-in era subgenres it’s supposedly paying tribute to. This is a grimy slasher film about a small crew of subprofessional pornographers who are slaughtered by elderly Evangelicals in rural Texas, 1979. The film is most satisfying as a Texas Chainsaw-inspired creep-out, unleashing a long-isolated family of murderous weirdos onto the big-city “sex fiends” who invade their small town. It’s also admirable in the way it highlights the true independent filmmaking spirit shared between horror & pornography in that era – two low-budget/high-profitability genres that were closely paralleled in their production & reputation. It’s annoying, then, that X‘s view of late-70s pornography is so phony & patronizing. Its six-person film crew is supposedly committed to creating porn that can be enjoyed & appreciated as legitimate art instead of disposable smut, but they’re working on a goofy cliché titled The Farmer’s Daughters, which they intend to distribute on VHS (despite shooting on film, a more expensive format). There’s a bizarre dissonance there, as if they’re discussing the production of Equation to an Unknown but in practice filming scenes from Bat Pussy. The audience has no choice but to laugh at their artistic ambitions, since the conflict between their words and their work is played as a joke. I hate to be such a scold about this, but presenting the concept of artful pornography as inherently funny is pretty hack & outdated at this point, especially if your recreation of it is the same funk guitar & screeching orgasms as a 90s sketch parody. This goes doubly so if you’re borrowing the look & feel of vintage pornography—low-budget genre films made fully in earnest—to boost the entertainment value of your A24-distributed horror mainstreamer. It’s insulting.
It’s a testament to Mia Goth’s fearlessness & “X-factor” appeal that X amounts to anything remarkable at all. She stars in dual roles as a young porno actress and her elderly, sexually-repressed admirer: a lonely old woman whose Evangelical husband no longer desires her, so she violently seeks extramarital satisfaction with the unsuspecting youth they lure to their farm. There’s something special about the intergenerational dynamic Goth shares between the two versions of herself. She paws at her own flesh in lecherous hunger, willing to burn down the entire world just to get one last taste of youthful beauty before death. The closest The Farmer’s Daughters’ crew gets to announcing X‘s central theme is when they lament “One day we’re going to be too old to fuck.” It’s an epiphany that doubles as a blanket excuse for hedonism and as a genuinely horrific vision of their sexless, geriatric future. What I can’t figure out is why West felt the need to bury that vision under so much phony vintage-grindhouse cheese. His heart really isn’t in the throwback genre markers anyway. The porno recreations are treated as a joke, and the slasher scenes include cross-cutting transition techniques that have no discernible purpose besides feeling quaintly outdated. It’s not enough that West mocks his pornographer characters for wanting to make ambitious art out of smut; he can’t even match their “avant-garde cinema” ambitions in his own work. Only Goth comes through with anything worth championing here. At least she gets to do it twice.
As far as retro porno-horrors go, X is no Knife+Heart. I’m not even convinced it’s the better Texas Chainsaw throwback from this year. There is a great, discomforting slasher film lurking somewhere in the tension between those two genre divides, though. It’s just a shame it wasn’t allowed to be its own thing without paying homage to an already overmined past.