The new A24 release pays homage to 1970s indie horror.
Ti West’s new horror film, "X," opening in cinemas today, cleverly plays with genre tropes as it delivers.
The premise is simple: It's 1979, and a group of wannabe filmmakers sets out to shoot a porno at a rural Texas ranch but run into problems when the reclusive, elderly hosts have an unexpected response to the group's activity.
Sometimes there is a moment in a film that just wins me over or so turns me off that it colors my perspective on the entire film. West won me over with his opening shot. He begins "X" with the boxy aspect ratio of 16mm film as we look out at a rural Texas house. The image immediately makes us think of indie filmmaking from decades past, but then that square image slowly expands to fill a wider, more contemporary screen and we discover that the image we were seeing was simply cropped by barn doors. As the camera pushes in and through the doors to the outside, we find ourselves at a bloody and brutal crime scene.
From that moment I knew I was in good hands. The shot quickly and cleverly says it is referencing a tradition of 1970s indie filmmaking — and horror films such as "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" in particular — but in a new way.
From that opening scene, which lets us know that horrific things will happen so that we can be on edge from the start, the film jumps back 24 hours. We meet the group as they are heading out from their strip club to the rural location. There are the entrepreneurial leader and strip club owner, two strippers, a Vietnam veteran, an ambitious filmmaker and his quiet girlfriend. They may be amateurs in the sense that no one is paying them to make the film, but they are tackling the production from a professional point of view, with a script, actors who know what they need to do, and a small, but competent, crew.
RJ (Owen Campbell) wants to infuse this porno with some French New Wave auteurism, and Wayne (Martin Henderson) doesn't care, so long as what they make sells and makes a star out of his girlfriend, Maxine (Mia Goth), who he says has that "X" factor. All is going well until Pearl (Goth in a second role and unrecognizable under heavy makeup and prosthetics) takes an interest in the porno.
West pays homage to a legacy of indie horror while tweaking genre tropes in ways that are both satiric and anxiety-inducing. A24, the film's distributor, has won a reputation for distributing what some call “elevated” horror ("Hereditary," "The Witch," "Midsommar"). But the term seems designed by people who somehow want to separate these films from their base genre roots as some kind of cleansing act. Because, no matter how much money or acclaim horror films receive, mainstream America still seems to find it hard to embrace the genre openly. If a film can be somehow distanced from the genre — as with something like "Get Out" — then they feel it's OK to like it.
(Please note: Though I dislike the term "elevated horror," I do love all the films I mentioned here, which sometimes get slapped with that label.)
RJ's character, with his constant insistence that, even though he is shooting people having sex, he is not making porn but rather art, seems to exist to poke fun at that notion of "elevated" filmmaking. But West also seems to enjoy his passion for the project. But it is fun to see A24 distribute a film that takes satiric jabs at the notion of "elevated" horror."
West's film is meta but not in the painful wink-wink, nudge-nudge jokiness of the "Scream" franchise. Instead, it's a more subtle way of referencing the horror genre through just the visual look of the location or the costumes or the framing. Sometimes he has overt fun, too, as when someone looks through a hole in wall and everyone winces because we've seen Lucio Fulci's "Zombi 2" (and dozens of others) and we know what could happen. It makes horror fans tense but also delights them by paying homage to what we love.
But the freshness that West brings involves how the older characters are put to use in the film. I don't want to give too much away, so I will just say that, on a certain level, West shows that old age might be the most horrific thing you can put on the screen. The fact that Maxine and Pearl are played by the same actress and that Pearl points out how the two share a certain X factor but that it will fade work to showing the potential horrors of aging. And the only time the audience at the preview screening was moved to cry out at the film was at a point when the decrepit Pearl makes sexual advances on the young RJ. That — more than any gruesome, blood-soaked violence — disgusted and terrified the audience.
In his previous films, West displayed talent, but no single film was a knockout until now.
"X" adds to the fascinating and diverse collection of horror that A24 has been releasing. It is a film that horrors fans will embrace.