Impressive in every role she’s been in since her movie debut in 2015’s The Survivalist, Mia Goth has been a star in waiting for a while now. While X isn’t every young woman’s idea of getting your name in lights – the nudity, the blood, the screaming – Goth seizes it with both hands.
Appropriately, to some extent it’s a story about fame as well – Goth plays Maxine, a young dancer at a burlesque strip joint who heads off into the backwoods to shoot a porn movie with a bunch of other people. All of them will soon, they’re certain, be hitting the big time once the world gets a load of the film they’ve made.
It’s 1979, and writer/director Ti West is plonking us down in the 1970s of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – kids in a van, in a strange out of the way place, where grisly things seem almost certain to happen – with enough visual references to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic early on to assure us of two things. 1: West knows what he’s doing. 2: there will be blood.
It’s a very good cast who slot right into the characters they’re meant to be playing. Goth as Maxine the fame-hungry ingenue. Martin Henderson as Wayne, her 40-something lover and producer of The Farmer’s Daughter, the porn blockbuster that’s going to make them all rich. Brittany Snow as Bobby-Lynne, the pneumatic, blond leading lady. Scott Mescudi aka rapper Kid Cudi as Jackson, her well endowed leading man and lover. Owen Campbell as RJ, the director/cameraman with arthouse pretensions. Jenny Ortega as Lorraine, RJ’s girlfriend and sound person, a young woman with a prudish streak that’s going to be tested.
In this rural byway where Wayne has hired an outbuilding, there are also a pair of oldtimers, Howard and Pearl. And we know this arrangement is going to end gruesomely because West has opened his film at the end, a scene of carnage and splatter.
But for a while at least all goes according to plan. The young guys shoot their porn film in the outbuildings and the oldsters get on with their lives, though the possibly senile Pearl can be liable to wander, Howard tells the group. Does she ever.
If West starts off in Chain Saw land he’s soon crossed the Atlantic to Italy and giallo territory. The influence of 1970s movies like Dario Argento’s Suspiria – the soundtrack of synths and the echoey voices, the lighting suddenly switching to lurid red – is clear. There’s even some crack-voiced macabre comic juxtaposition, very Italian, like when one of this youthful posse gets slaughtered to the accompaniment of Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper on his car radio. He obviously should have feared the reaper a bit more.
There is jeopardy – Maxine swimming out in a lake where alligators also swim, Wayne walking barefoot towards a nail sticking out upright from a piece of wood – which West sets up with a Hitchcockian wink.
However, the juice that powers the film is the revulsion the young and gorgeous feel for the old and wrinkly, made explicit by the casting of Mia Goth in two roles. She’s not only sexy Maxine but also plays Pearl, the crone who laments the loss of her hotness and the status that went with it, as well as her husband’s inability to make love to her. It’s his heart, he says, though the pair of them look so ancient that any glimmer of erectile life in Howard would be a miracle.
While Pearl is working herself into a dangerous and vengeful lather up in the house, down in the barn Maxine is putting her hot, smooth body to work doing her first porn scene. Wayne tells her she most definitely has the X factor. X, of course, was also the rating attached to horror films in days of yore. Porn movies used it too, once they realised the semi-legitimising rating was up for grabs, and West has fun smudging that porn/horror boundary, in much the same way as countless films of the era did. For those who worry about these things, the porn doesn’t get too explicit (unless breasts freak you out) and the horror – well, that’s interesting. Up to about the halfway mark West carefully builds mood, much as he did in his brilliant The Innkeepers. Till then this is an unusually meditative horror movie punctuated with the odd shock.
And then in the second half of the movie West sets that tension to work. Suddenly it’s bloodletting time and the pitiless logic of the Texas Chain Saw takes over, topped with giallo whips and sprinkles.
There’s political irony also at work here. A film about boomers set in their youthful heyday and all about the old and senescent getting payback, but made in the 2020s when the same boomers are now the oldsters and have, in their own way, taken a kind of revenge on the young, denying them the benefits (good jobs, affordable housing, decent pensions) their parents and grandparents have taken for granted.
Mia Goth will return in the film’s prequel, Pearl, which West shot back to back with X. Perhaps he’ll address some of those issues there…
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