If there are any other films that come out in 2022, that I enjoy half as much as this picture, I will count this as a good year, because this movie is awesome. The world is full of low budget horror films, but it takes something special to stand out and this movie has that “X” factor. Although it is filled with the tropes of a hundred other horror films, it manages to make them work and feel fresh. Some of this success is due to the great cast who work really hard to make this work, but a lion’s share of the credit will have to go to writer/director Ti West, who has taken this mash-up of genres and created something wickedly sly, fun, and creepy all at the same time.
When you read about this film in other places, the two films that are likely to be referenced as the mash-up ingredients are “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Boogie Nights”. Those comparisons are completely understandable because the premise of both films are contained here. A group of young people in Texas, go to a remote location and bad things happen. It also so happens that the reason they are in that location is to make a pornographic film along the lines of “Debbie Does Dallas”. It’s perfectly fitting to nickname this movie the “Texas Boogie Massacre”. The most delightful element of the film is it’s fidelity to both the pornography of the era it is set in and the horror films of that time as well. The events in the story are set in 1979, and the film makers follow the rules of a 70s era film rather than a 21st Century movie. This is a slow burn that foreshadows for an hour before the crazy starts. There are no real shocks in the first sixty minutes, but a mood of anticipation, dread and sadness hangs over everything that does happen. This is a movie style that I can get behind and feel like my time has been well spent, rather than rushing me through the horror and trying to escalate it every ten minutes. The delayed gratification was tasty.
Most horror films that are memorable have a subtext that also stirs the audience. The slasher films of the 80s are often filled with sexual awakening being tied into the terror. Paranoia and identity were subjects of some of the great science fiction based horror of that time period as well. Recently, sexually transmitted disease was transformed into monsters of terror for horror films. “X” has several subtexts that make it more than a simple slasher film. There are a couple of these which are so unique that the film will evoke horror at just a thought of those elements, when they get pictured on the screen they are even more horrifying. Let’s start with the first and most obvious of these subtexts, sexual inadequacy. This movie stares into our insecurities about our sex lives and finds ways to disturb us with key questions about libido, promiscuity, and sexual adequacy. The young crew of pornographers that are shown on the screen are tussling over morality on occasion, but also the question of when is the sex in their movie real and when is it acting. Kid Cudi, who had a memorable secondary part in “Bill and Ted Face the Music” a couple of years ago, plays a stud called Jackson who is hired for the movie because of the size of his equipment. That appendage intrigues one character, intimidates another and it is treated indifferently by his co star, which sets him up for doubt as well. Everybody in this tale is getting a bit of a comeuppance before the violence starts. The choices the characters are making feel like echoes of the choices made by the elderly couple that they are renting a boarding house from as the set of their movie. This is the territory of the second big subtext of the film, ageism.
The elderly in our culture are often ignored or treated as a joke by the younger generation. In this case, an old couple is regarded with some distain by the young film crew. One of the justifications for making the sex picture, that is given by one of the principles, is that you need to use it before you lose it (although not said in those words). In discussing the old man, one character suggests the old man has probably suffered from ED longer than one of the young girls has been alive. However it is the wife of the old man who really pushes the boundaries of our expectations, and the film makers know that the audience will find revulsion in the image of sexuality involving the aged. The characters will ultimately determine whether or not that instinctive reaction is justified. There are moments of great sympathy interspersed with scenes of depravity and maliciousness.
Skipping past the other subtextual issues, we should talk about the story telling techniques used by
director West. If you watch the trailer above, you will see that the movie jumps back and forth between a widescreen format in natural colors and a 16mm format with saturated colors representing the film they are shooting “The Farmers Daughters”. This clever alternating of the styles of photography allows some parallel story telling and a bit of foreshadowing as well. The filming of the sex scenes is less titillation than it is character development, as we learn how the players relate to each other and what they are doing. The elderly woman becomes a counterpoint to the story being told about the film crew, not so much the film they are making. Outside of that trick, there were a couple of other very nicely planned shots, including the opening shot which reveals more information as the camera lens exits a barn and takes in a wider aspect of the scene at the start of the movie. Another sequence is shot from a very high perspective and it allows the audience to know fear that the character in the scene does not even realize exists. We also get a twist on the shower scene from “Psycho”, without physical violence but almost as brutal in it’s emotional impact. I liked that there was a moment in the film when one of the actresses makes a suggestion about how to shoot a section of film, it feels like something the director of this movie might have had happen to him several times in developing a plan for the cinematographer.
The characters of Lorraine and RJ represent a portal between the sex workers/actors and the traditional world. At first we might see their naivete as amusing, but there are morality issues that get raised in the story, but the moral may not be what you anticipate. Jenna Ortega who plays Lorraine is in her third horror film that I have seen her in this year. She is the first victim in the “Scream” reboot and she has a small part in “Studio 666” from just last week. She is an innocent being changed by the experience of helping make the film in the story. Own Campbell is RJ, the University film student who wants to transcend the genre with his script and directors choices, but he can’t escape his sense of tradition in his own relationship and it tears him apart. Martin Henderson is Wayne, the entrepreneur who has brought the group together to fulfill his dreams of riches. Brittany Snow is the older and wiser actress Bobby Lynn, who is happy to have Jackson as a lover but not willing to concede that there is anything other than acting in her technique. The star of the movie however is Mia Goth, who plays a double role as Maxine the coke fueled stripper with dreams of celebrity and Pearl, who lives on the memories of her sexual past. The make up on this film is astonishing especially for the character Pearl. Stephen Ure, who has made a career out of being covered by make up in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, once again is hidden behind layers of effects make up that renders his performance appropriately creepy.
On a side note, I saw the first hour and a half of this film, and then an alarm went off in the theater and all the cinemas were evacuated and they did not restart the films that were interrupted. The false alarm caused us to miss the last twenty minutes of the picture, which is when everything is coming together in a movie. My daughter Amanda coined the phrase “Horror Film Blue Balls” to describe our circumstances. We saw the complete film, twenty four hours later, so this perspective comes from seeing the film twice. The last line of the movie made me laugh really hard and solidified my opinion that Ti West knew exactly how to work his audience. The film did well financially this last weekend, but it would not surprise me at all that it improves on it’s box office next weekend, the word of mouth on this should be really strong and it deserves to build an audience. By the way, if you stay past the credits, you will see a trailer for a follow up film that will be coming in November. I can’t recommend this movie enough and I also strongly endorse sticking around for the stinger trailer. I don’t know what it says about me as a person that I liked this film so much, but I’m not worried about that enough to keep me from singing it’s praises.