“X” is an unusual, ambitious horror movie made by thoughtful people. Watching the film, I thought to myself, “I should be satisfied, but I’m not, not quite.”
In some fashions, I was reminded of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” Same problem. “X” writer-director Ti West and Tarantino are both astute people. I’m sure I’d love to have coffee with both of them and talk slasher semiotics, but the movies are similarly locked in their creator’s heads. Concerned more with structural theory than drama.
It’s 1979 and a bunch of young, hot people are in Texas with aims to shoot a porno movie. They’ve rented a farmhouse about a mile from where the cannibals of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” live, thinking they won’t get into trouble. The set-up is old-hat and distinctive somehow at once. West, a talented filmmaker with a flair for atmosphere, convincingly emulates the blurry, washed-out, hallucinatory quality of classic ‘70s horror movies. He also likes his characters, which is becoming and unusual for this genre.
These young people are hot and sexually free. Astonishingly, they aren’t assholes. They don’t ridicule the locals in the fashions that normally have audiences anticipating carnage. In fact, their empathy often gets them in trouble. Late in the movie, there’s a spectacular shock effect, where a man is killed precisely for doing the good thing that should ordain his positive fate.
Making their porno, which West dramatizes with intimate, detailed finesse, the young’uns raise the ire of the creepy couple in the nearby farmhouse. An old woman, Pearl, is especially stimulated. She is aroused. She wants to be a part of the sexual freedom the characters exhibit. She registers her desire in a profoundly screwed-up, weirdly poignant way.
“X” is destined to be compared to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but it actually owes more to Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” West is attempting a piece on sexual hysteria, and he springs a brilliant concept that will probably be lost on audiences who don’t read film reviews. Mia Goth plays one of the porn actors, she’s our protagonist, and she also plays, under heavy make-up, Pearl.
This notion of the sexually free hero and the repressed, aging villain as being the same person takes us into the schizophrenic territory of Norman Bates. There’s a sense of Pearl reflecting an unwelcome future to the hotties, of her forcing them, prematurely, to reckon with their mortality. That gives the murder scenes subtext. When Pearl beholds the young Goth without makeup, she is seeing herself, glimpsing a lone-gone past, dealing with her faded youth.
Goth’s double casting is resonant, but has limitations. To put it bluntly, Pearl looks like a young person in makeup. The fakeness puts a distance between us and Pearl, allowing us to intellectualize her sexual frustration rather than grappling with it viscerally. If she was a real old woman, played by someone who might understand advanced aging directly, “X” might have had more sting. Despite West’s surprising willingness to engage with Pearl’s desires, she’s still ultimately a stylized horror-movie demon.
Like “The House of the Devil” and “The Sacrament,” “X” shows that West is great with set-up, but limited on follow through. After priming us for an unusual horror movie that will take women’s agencies into consideration, West springs just another kill fest. That might’ve been fine anyway, but the film’s violence, with the exception of an extraordinary overhead image of a lake, feels halfhearted, obligatory. The porno concept, initially so promising, physicalizing the sexual titillation and resentment that generally courses through slasher movies, is basically abandoned. After more than an hour of build-up, all West has up his sleeve is essentially an unusually stylish “Friday the 13th.”
I may be sounding ungrateful. “X” will almost certainly stand out as one of the best horror movies of the year, my carping notwithstanding. It’s just that a better, truly crazy movie seems to be hovering around the margins. Worst of all, Pearl is dispatched glibly. West doesn’t see the weight of her frustration and wrath through. He’s just thoughtful enough to make you wish he were truly sincere. He dresses you up for an outing that doesn’t quite exist.