Movie Review: “X” marks the intersection of horror and porn, and the birthplace of the Culture Wars

“X” doesn’t reinvent one of the most popular, time-tested horror genres so much as breathe a little life into it.

That “promiscuous young folks go slumming in rural America and get themselves slaughtered” plot feels seriously worn-out. But writer-director Ti West (“The Sacrament”) gives it a reset as he takes us back to a blood-spattered birthplace of the Culture Wars, with fundamentalism stripped down to its bare, hateful resentments of the carnal hedonism that new generations have embraced, and sexual liberality is exposed for the empty opportunism it can embody.

Even if few of the many murders served-up in this spatter-stained slaughter have real novelty to them, even if the set-up and “Psycho” meets “Friday the 13th” set-up is entirely too familiar, West has made a rare horror tale that makes you listen, ponder and consider what’s happening to its hapless victims, and why.

West takes the “Well, they had it coming” horror trope of “extra-marital sex gets you killed” and turns it on its “Psycho” ear.

Veteran character actor Martin Henderson (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Miracles from Heaven”) is Wayne, a hustler who has figured out a new way to “get rich” off the “girls” he manages in a seedy Houston strip club. He’s rented an old boarding house on a ranch that’s gone to seed out in the sticks and convinced his much-younger stripper/girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), her more experienced colleague Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Bobby-Lynne’s Black boyfriend (Kid Cudi) to come make a porno, “like ‘Debby Does Dallas.'”

It’s 1979 and Wayne can see the future, when people are going to want to “watch porn in the comfort of their own homes.” With an artistic-minded filmmaker (Owen Campbell) and the filmmaker’s girlfriend (Jenna Ortega) coming along to record sound, they’ll make “The Farmers’ Daughters” into “cinematic art” that’ll “make us all rich.”

Naturally they all ride up in a ’70s van. Of course they stop for “supplies” with the unfiltered Wayne and underdressed “talent” drawing unwanted attention from the store owner.

And naturally, the old geezer (Stephen Ure) who rents them the place out behind his farmhouse takes a dislike to Wayne. But money is money…

The crew of six commences to filming, and the more explicit the better. But there’s another person in that farmhouse, along with simmering resentments and deathly dark secrets. Maybe that gator in the swimmin’ pond and everybody’s tendency to run around barefoot and bare-assed around buggy barns and tumbledown outbuildings aren’t the only threats facing our enterprising movie makers.

West frames this story in a flashback. We’ve seen a sheriff (James Gaylyn) doffing and donning his sunglasses as he walks through the aftermath of whatever went wrong out there.

The director intercuts a non-stop TV sermon by a drawling, fire-and-brimstone preacher, warning of a “forgiving God” who has his “limits” into the proceedings, and gives his heroine the motivation that has driven generations of youth, much to the dismay of their increasingly enraged, conservative and “left out” elders.

“I need to be FAMOUS, Wayne,” is Maxine’s mantra. Most everybody here has that on their minds. The elderly, embittered and infirm can only mutter “I was young, once.” Maxine is the stand-out character and Goth (“Suspiria”) both the heart of the movie and its spectral warning of what’s to come, in more ways than one.

The movie-within-the-movie has a cheesy, 16mm celluloid quality. And the homages are sometimes implied but just as often spoken aloud — “Pyscho” among them.

West never quite lets the murdersp lapse into “perfunctory.” But his foreshadowing is obvious enough to feel intentional, and most of the gruesome killings are ideas cribbed from other movies, also intentional.

If you’re making a horror homage to other horror and setting your story in the late ’70s, with the soundtrack to match, there’s one touchstone tune destined to underscore your tour de force moment. This song was in the original “Halloween,” opens the first TV version of “The Stand” and returned to its hallowed place in horror with “Scream.” “Don’t Fear the Reaper” dresses up a fairly generic if gushing and graphically-detailed first murder, with chilling, Rock Hall-of-Fame-worthy style.

What West is really interested in is the sinister, self-absorbed generational resentment that provides the conflict in these movies. Before the phrase “Red State vs. Blue State” was ever coined, what West envisions is horror that predicts it and sees it coming. “X” takes us back to open our eyes to what all of these movies have been saying, showing us the culmination of America’s city vs. country, sophisticated vs. falling behind divide.

This sort of “Chainsaw Massacre without Chainsaws” has always pointed to that aching sense of a world that’s left the armed, unsophisticated and embittered behind. And the libidinous, tolerant and post-’60s “free love” drug-experimenting youth so often portrayed as “got what they had coming to them” in such movies never saw it coming, and never “had it coming,” no matter how often the genre reinforced that glib, hateful message.

The monsters are real, and with or without masks or machetes, they’d rather see others dead than be reminded that others are having a better time.

Rating: R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, and language

Cast: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Kid Cudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, James Gaylyn and Brittany Snow.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Ti West. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.