The renegade intensity of Ti West’s “X,” another homage by the “House of the Devil” writer-director to independent cinema’s past, and his first horror film in over a decade, is his willingness to ask: What if a slasher, but with porn? That genre bending — in a rollicking, wicked dark horror comedy about intrepid filmmakers just barely scraping by, the fetishization of youth, and how the weight of aging into a sexless marriage can lead to mayhem — brings the spirit of the rule-breaking 1970s moviemaking back to modern audiences. While West isn’t always operating on the same levels as his influences, his signature flair for tension through simmering slow-burn pacing remains unparalleled.
“X” kicks off on a secluded Texas farm surrounded by local police. The opening scene, framed within a barn, peers outside toward a simple wooden home peeking above the brush landscape. As an incessant buzz of flies swarm, the camera tracks outside revealing a trio of cop cars. There is a blood-soaked sheet covering an unknown body. A recently used ax grips the porch and a wide streak of crimson leads to inside the quaint, albeit creepy home. On the television plays a Southern televangelist, one of those local holy roller church services that never seems to go off air. Yes, something bad happened here.
Backtracking to 24 hours earlier, we meet the coke-snorting, assured Maxine (Mia Goth), who works as an exotic dancer for the grifting, brutish Wayne (Martin Henderson) at his Bayou Burlesque. The couple, who share an uncomfortable muse-artist relationship, believe they’re destined for more, and Wayne is willing to bankroll a low-budget hardcore porn titled “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which Maxine will star in, to prove it.
The burlesque owner also enlists Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), a blonde bombshell in the mold of Marilyn Monroe, and her ex-military boyfriend with a giant dong, Jackson (Kid Cudi) to star in the movie too. Rounding out the skeleton crew are RJ (Owen Campbell), a hungry director wanting to make an artistic adult film through the school of French avant-garde cinema, and his quiet but observant girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). They board Wayne’s blue van, a vehicle emblazoned with the winking name “Plowing Service,” to a secluded farm owned by an elderly couple.
This group of brazen filmmakers aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. Nor are they totally precious with the art of moviemaking. But they do possess the will to create, to live a life outside of anonymity by making their mark on the world. Wayne might carry himself with the gusto of a big shot, but he’s making this porn on a shoestring guerrilla-style budget: RJ is only armed with a handheld camera, Lorraine operates the lone boom mic, and the farm they’re using for the shoot fell into Wayne’s lap through a supposed sweetheart deal.
Only one problem visibly exists: Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (a heavily prosthetic-laden Goth). The elderly couple, a grotesque combination of swollen and reedy features, replete with mangled teeth and disintegrating white hair, are unaware that this band of filmmaking outlaws are making a porno on their own property.
West plays out this anxiety for eerie dread and sly laughs, often drawing parallels between Maxine and Pearl. The latter, in her time, commanded attention as a free-spirited beauty. But now she pines for youth, fetishizes smooth skin and wants the kind of sex Howard seems incapable of giving anymore. There is a friskiness, for lack of a better term, to Pearl in the barely steadied but hurried way she moves. We immediately know she’s disturbed. We can also see the hulking mass of repulsiveness that is Howard. And we’re not quite sure who’s the villain or who’s the victim.
Not to be forgotten, of course, this is a porn film within a horror film. It’s telling how often West plays the sex scenes for laughs: the sassy Bobby-Lynne does the mostest performing, loud moans and all. The workman-like Jackson (Kid Cudi has always possessed a steady, unmoored presence) is all concentration. And RJ’s lens, featuring a warm 16mm patina, always seems focused on the wrong shots at the wrong time. As much as West mines for gags, he holds a clear admiration for the full commitment required to make an adult film, and is equally enamored by the allure of sex in relation to moviemaking. Lorraine and Wayne, for instance, can’t help but be transfixed while watching Jackson and Bobby-Lynne perform their scene together. Is it the grinding of those bodies that enraptures them? Or is it the sight of acts committed to film that grips them? West steers us to the former, but never wholly dismisses the latter.
West giddily relaxes on this liminal plane, patiently building tension through stillness and ambiguity. DP Eliot Rockett loves scenes of extremely long shots, allowing the high grass landscape to consume the actors. He further adores leveraging negative space for big frights. In one scene, a bird’s eye view sees a character floating in the middle of a grim pond, the only other figure is a stealthy alligator, swimming toward her. The sparse tableau provides intense results.
In the film’s second half are sharp kills, with even sharper edits by West and David Kashevaroff, wagering exacting match cuts for gory thrills. The ensuing freakout supplies a nourishing amount of blood, replete with ingenious kills, and a charming sense of humor to the absurd violence that positions “X” away from a self-serious horror realm to a film not afraid to have some fun. After a couple star-making roles in “Suspiria” and “High Life,” Goth rises among the ranks of scream queens, while projecting a hardened edge. Snow as Bobby-Lynne delivers the script’s copious dirty one-liners with aplomb.
While “X” is an ingenious rejiggering of genre archetypes, a few shortcomings hold it back: The instigating reason behind the murders, intoxicating sex, feels underdeveloped. The mystery behind the elderly couple is a tad too cute, too knowingly brisk. Still, the melding of two seemingly different but closely related energies — those of adult films and bloody slashers — is a fascinating angle from which to interrogate the horror of aging in relation to sexual status. The maxim “you can never be too old,” applies nearly everywhere, except in West’s “X.”
“X” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters on Friday, March 18.