If overt promiscuity is one of the most obvious markers of a potential victim in a horror movie, then you can probably assume the fates of the protagonists in “X,” a group of filmmakers and actors who travel to a small Texas town circa the late 1970s to make an adult film. But while “X” always feels like it’s heading in a predictable direction, writer and director Ti West subverts expectations with story that is fun, funny, wild, gory, a little sad, and delightfully weird.
“X” begins at the end, with the local sheriff (James Gaylyn) arriving on the scene of a crime at a farmhouse. Covered bodies are strewn about the premises, and there’s blood everywhere. The film then flashes back to 24 hours earlier. Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a young, coke-snorting actress working in porn movies but who dreams of stardom, is preparing to embark on road trip with her producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), who is taking her and their crew to a remote Texas farmhouse to shoot their movie. They are joined by fellow actors Jackson (Scott Mescudi) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), director RJ (Owen Campbell), who aspires to elevate the film above the usual smut, and RJ’s quiet girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who Wayne dubs “church mouse” thanks to her aloofness and the cross she wears around her neck. When they arrive at the farmhouse, they are greeted by its gruff, elderly owner Howard (Stephen Urie) and watched curiously from afar by Howard’s wife Pearl, neither of whom know the group’s real reason for staying on their property.
It’s difficult to say more about the plot of “X” without giving too much away, but let’s just say that Pearl’s desires aren’t being met, and she’s fascinated by the attractive young people, in particular Maxine. Goth plays both Maxine and, astoundingly, also Pearl, drawing a deeper parallel between the two women, especially after Pearl reveals that as a young woman, she was a dancer. Maxine’s line of entertainment work may be quite different from that, but Pearl still serves as a potential look into her future, while for Pearl, Maxine is who she used to be. Pearl’s aroused interest has deadly consequences, but it’s quite some time before “X” ventures into full slasher territory. Its slow build may be tedious for some horror fans, but West keeps things interesting through the film’s grainy throwback aesthetic—often cutting quickly between the porn film the group is making and events happening in real time off camera as a way to both move the action forward and provide a bit of foreshadowing—the creepiness of the setting, and the often humorous interactions between the characters. And there are some really nicely-composed shots, like an aerial view of Maxine swimming in some potentially dangerous waters.
When events do turn bloody, West delivers with some pretty grisly thrills and kills, giving the audience the pay-off on some teases early in the movie, but underlying all of that is another layer of that isn’t afraid to “go there.” “X” is undoubtedly a homage to 70s slashers, but the fact that the instigator of the bloodshed isn’t a disturbed man but rather a frail old woman confronting her repressed desires puts a different spin on an otherwise familiar scenario, and makes it feel like there’s more to unpack there (and in fact, West apparently filmed a backstory titled “Pearl” concurrently with this film, and it’s currently in post-production). The ultimate messaging is a bit questionable, but while the film may not appear entirely confident in what it’s trying to say about ageism, it does at the same time prompt the viewer to exhibit some empathy for Pearl.
Not all of “X” flows seamlessly. Some of the character choices feel not fully fleshed out or as if they’ve come out of left field, like a sudden decision made by Ortega’s Lorraine that you could say instigates the film’s entire third act. And there are some needless conventional horror movie tropes thrown in, like the creepy dolls in Howard and Pearl’s home. But by and large, “X” merges the familiar and the fresh in a way that’s maybe not very scary, but certainly very entertaining. Goth and Ortega confirm that they are the next great scream queens, but Snow is also a scene-stealer with her bubbly performance. If there’s anything truly frightening about “X,” it’s likely the prospect of life taking a turn the way it did for Pearl. That, and alligators.
“X” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 105 minutes. Rated R.