The latest offbeat offering from acclaimed production studio A24, X draws upon elements of dark comedy, arthouse, and exploitation cinema to create a horror movie with a twist.
The film is set in the 1970s and sees a gang of hip and horny youths on a road trip through rural Texas, before stumbling upon a secluded farmhouse with a grisly secret. Sure, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence is not exactly subtle. But director Ti West mostly pulls it off, skillfully replicating the gonzo shooting style of the 1974 classic with an authentically retro vibe. If only X could match the scares and brutal impact of Leatherface’s debut.
X also leans into sleazier genre tropes. Not the film to watch with your parents, barely a scene passes without at least one character getting naked. It’s not entirely gratuitous though. In fact, nudity is essential to the story as it explores the dark side of desire, beauty, and sexuality in a youth-obsessed world. Moreover, how else would characters film the many graphic sex scenes for their X-rated home movie-within-a-movie “The Farmer’s Daughter” — a low budget, deeply unsexy, film school version of Debbie Does Dallas. Oh, did I not mention they’re all amateur porn stars?
Made up of bubbly Bobby-Lyne (Brittany Snow), her studly co-star Jackson (Kid Cudi), director RJ (Owen Campbell), his mousy girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), the sleazy older guy Wayne (Martin Henderson) and the enigmatic Maxine Minx (a hypnotic Mia Goth), this adult actor troupe share more than bodily fluids. They all have a burning desire for money, fame, and a life of counter-culture hedonism — whatever the cost. Impatient to get started on a new pornographic passion project, the six agree to rent a cheap boarding-house deep in the Texas countryside, dilapidated old shacks apparently being the perfect location for filming erotica. All they have to do is conceal their activities from the shotgun-toting old man living next door. And not disturb his wife. Strangers make her… overexcited.
Deliciously unsettling, these early scenes are a masterclass in slow-burn suspense. Other than the voyeuristic sense of the characters being watched, the audience has no idea where the story is going or why we’re so afraid. All we do know is that “The Farmer’s Daughter” set is going to get a whole lot messier than the average porno. And when we reach the climax, no one will be faking it.
Signifying a major plot turn, lighting assistant Lorraine unexpectedly asks to be given a “scene” in her boyfriend’s movie. “We’ve already shot half of it,” says RJ in protest. “The story can’t just suddenly change midway through!”
An ingeniously meta moment, the line is spoken 51 minutes and 38 seconds into X’s runtime: exactly halfway through the film. And as you might have guessed, RJ is immediately proved wrong, with the arrival of a second act that feels like an entirely different film. But though it’s satisfyingly gory and delivers the occasional shock, X takes a nosedive as soon as it foregrounds two of the least frightening psychopathic killers in cinematic history.
Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say Howard and Pearl (the elderly occupants of next door’s farmhouse) really aren’t cut out for hosting tenants. Their presence shifts from creepy to confusing to downright silly. Like the shark in Jaws, the couple is really only scary off-screen.
A big part of the problem is the characters’ cartoonish appearances, which stick out like a sore thumb next to X’s otherwise gritty and realistic visual style. Following the assumption that the older the creepier, Howard and Pearl move with the exaggerated decrepitude of a couple in their early to mid-hundreds, with makeup and prosthetics so overdone that they might as well be in Halloween masks. Then again, the options are limited when the actor is some forty years too young for the role (Stephen Ure, aka Howard, is in his early sixties). And while I won’t spoil the twist by telling you who plays Pearl, suffice to say the actress is well, well before her twilight years.
A series of missed opportunities as opposed to outright disaster, X’s flawed and anticlimactic latter half redeems itself at times. One of the most memorable scenes is after Pearl’s first act of violence, as she twirls gracefully in the red glow of a car’s headlights, covered in blood and chillingly serene. Additionally, the running theme of poisonous lust, and jealousy over youth and beauty (though slightly underdeveloped) was an interesting and clever twist on the usually male-serial killer gaze. If only we saw more of this unconventional subtext rather than Howard and Pearl’s extended sex scene — dirty talk and all.
Though the film’s early scenes suggest brilliance, X’s underdeveloped themes and reliance on gimmicks over real horror undermine its cult-classic potential. Nonetheless, a wildly entertaining take on the horror genre, the film is worth watching for its style, if not substance.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.