Getting a bunch of teenagers or young adults alone in a house in the middle of nowhere while a shadowy killer picks them off one by one is a classic horror setup, one that Ti West’s “X” employs with a twist; his group of young adults are there to shoot a porno.
Set in rural 1979 Texas, middle-aged producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) brings porn stars Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi), as well as his director, RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell) and boom operator, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) to a cabin he rented from its elderly owner to shoot a low-budget independent adult film that he hopes to distribute on the emerging home video market. Wayne is in it for the money, and is dating Bobby-Lynne, unfazed by her profession, whereas RJ hopes to make a good “serious” adult film, and has brought Lorraine, who is his girlfriend, into the production to get experience. Maxine serves as our focal point for much of the film, as she just hopes to get famous, and is alluded to have the “X” factor needed to be a real star in the industry. Bobby-Lynne and Jackson are veterans of the industry looking to get paid, and are one-dimensional for the most part, but Jackson is revealed to be a former marine who served in Vietnam.
The cabin is owned by an elderly man named Howard (Stephen Ure), who lives in the house adjacent to the cabin. He doesn’t like the kids, and even threatens to shoot them when he arrives. Also living in the house is his wife, Pearl (Mia Goth in heavy makeup), who initially keeps to herself in the attic, and is alluded to being not well.
The film starts to get going once they start filming some corny porn scenes, after which the group bonds. We know that Howard and Pearl looks down at their line of work, as do some people in the outside world, but I do think that the film makes an effort to paint the three main pornography actors in a positive light, and adult work in general, as they argue that they are just offering a way to fulfill a basic human need, and they enjoy what they do. That, however, disintegrates when Lorraine decides that she wants to star in a scene, in which RJ strongly objects — for him, it’s fine that other people do it, so long as it’s not someone close to him. Wayne talks him into letting her do it, hoping that it’ll help them sell more tapes, but he is left visibly scarred by the experience, as he has a front seat to her scene, as he is also the only cameraman for their film.
He then runs into Pearl, who tries to seduce him, and when he rejects her, that’s when the killing begins. West has a consistent, steady direction that builds up each kill, and he uses location, light (or lack thereof) and sound design to make the audience feel a constant sense of unease and dread, as Pearl (and later Howard) takes full advantage of the familiarly of their estate to gain the upper hand against their guests. A good 75 percent of this film is excellent horror, relying on few jump scares and plot contrivances, but there are moments where it feels like West just couldn’t help himself, or just didn’t know how to progress the story naturally, and the film falters.
One example is the scenes where he handles the fate of Jackson. He is the most physically-capable member of the group, and has been through rigorous training in the marines — he should fair well against two elderly attackers, and arguably should have been the last — if not one of the last — survivors. Unfortunately, it seems like West realized he had written himself into a hole, and as a result, Jackson falls victim to bad writing in which he acts completely counterintuitive to how he was set up.
The film’s last ten minutes, however, are far worse. We get to a point where we’re down to our last survivor who is trapped in Howard and Pearl’s house by the elderly couple, and one would think that we’re about to enter the final act of the film in which she escapes several close calls and either falls to her attackers or narrowly defeats them, but then West hurriedly wraps the film up in a bizarre series of events that feels like something you’d see in a Troma film, as if he ran out of time.
Pearl serves as the film’s main antagonist, as she is jealous by her young guests’ youth, and is sexually frustrated in her marriage with Howard. The film does make an effort to make her a sympathetic character leading up to her killing, as we see her room and a rushed backstory of what she was like when she was younger, but her snap comes out of nowhere and her motivation for killing is extremely weak. Having Goth play Maxine and Pearl was an interesting creative choice, and the film does try to create parallels between the two, but it doesn’t develop them enough for them to be profound.
“X” is a film that had a lot of potential and set itself up to be a great horror film, but a few key moments — including its bizarre final ten minutes — hold it back from being one. It’s still an above-average slasher with mostly great direction that you will enjoy if you’re into this genre, but I feel like it was only a few rewrites away from being something truly special.
“X” gets a 7.5/10