X feels like a reaction to the horror movie trend of having the spooky stuff be an artful metaphor for Serious Issues like trauma, depression, relationship angst, etc. The popular term for this is “elevated horror,” as codified in the opening minutes of Scream 5. Director and writer Ti West proudly wears his rejection of profundity as a badge of honor: The hapless fools of who get murdered are indeed filmmakers trying to turn exploitative smut into something artistic and “elevated”; though, in this case, it’s porn instead of horror. To drive the point home, the film takes place in 1979, during the downfall of the porno chic era (similar to Boogie Nights): even if the movie-within-a-movie had been completed and released, it surely would have flopped.
Anyways, what we have is a delectable, Texas Chainsaw-inspired slasher with a really tremendous slow boil opening… and I use “tremendous” in both senses of the word. The film’s long prelude to violence is spellbinding and tense, with loads of terrific and almost dreamlike compositions. There’s a particularly memorable shot of star and final girl Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) lazily swimming in a murky lake as a gator quietly stalks her, the film’s Argento-inspired soundtrack amplifying the suspense.
But the opening is also very long, almost cruelly so. The tension simmered so long I felt like hives were growing on my skin. It’s nearly an hour before the film’s first death. I just kept waiting for someone to get stabbed already — you know, with a blade, not a penis.
Speaking of which, I don’t think it’s fair to say that X totally removes any sort of “elevation” or psychological ambition from its horror formula. It is very clearly about something; in fact, it’s about a lot of messy things. Its main theme, said explicitly and aloud by multiple characters, is that sexual repression is bad. The sexually liberated porn stars are all pretty happy and well-adjusted (though not immune from mockery); it’s the people with hangups and prudishness that act rashly and dangerously, including the the two elder murderers. (Another theme of the movie is the ravages of aging, and the movie gets a lot of visceral discomfort out of the nudity and horniness of old, saggy people.)
Goth does solid though unremarkable work in a double performance; both the lead and the prosthetic-laden old lady killer. In fact the biggest thrill of the movie for me might have been when I placed that Goth was playing both roles at once. It’s a cool concept that mirrors some of the movie’s themes about repression and aging.
The movie pivots towards a gory black comedy in its second half as the body count piles up. The kills have a playful nastiness to them. The first death is an extended giallo splatterfest — great catharsis after a long buildup — and a couple of others have the cadence of goofy jump scares — there’s one particular use of a peephole eye stab that made me bark some half laugh/half shout noise I don’t think I’ve ever emitted before.
I’m not sure that X is a great movie, but it’s definitely an effective and immensely watchable one. It’s the good kind of filth. I eagerly await parts 2 and 3.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film