Review: A 1970s porn star runs into problems in ‘X’

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Houston 1979: A small film crew arrives at a rental cottage on a farm to make a porn movie. One of them is an elderly couple. The other greets the producer with a shotgun.

It’s clear that a bloodbath will follow in Ti West’s film “X.” In the movie’s first scene, a police detective walks timidly through halls covered in bloody sheets and corpses. A black-and-white TV blasts out with a local televangelist praising “a world full of sin.”

Although slasher movies have long made it a crime to engage in sexual acts, “X” cleverly rewrites the script. The film, which will open in theaters Friday, juggles all of the usual tropes, but shuffles them around so that it is not a whole-cloth new movie but a patchwork homage to tired formulas. This is quite fitting since “X” ultimately represents a grueling struggle between old and young.

First, you will notice “X’s command of atmosphere and camera movement. The film opens in an academy ratio, but it then pulls out to widescreen. This is a hint that “X” will invoke a 1970s vibe in a way that is conscious of the legacy of its predecessors. The most obvious reference is “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, but it also makes references to “Psycho” (and others) throughout the film. It’s remarkable how realistically grounded the tensions and human characters of “X” feel and are viscerally their own. It is the difference between a fake and authentic movie.

A group of amateurs are living in a Dodge van marked “Plowing Service”, and they believe they can make it big making their first porn movie. Wayne, a confident and chipper leader who is also the executive producer, believes Maxine (Mia Goth), has the “x factor” to make him a star. With turquoise eyes and a habit of using cocaine, she agrees. Bobby-Lynne, played by Brittany Snow), and Jackson (Scott Mescudi), are equally eager. Kid Cudi, a laid back Vietnam veteran. RJ (Owen Campbell), who is directing and operating the camera, has brought Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), to help him hold the boom. She is slightly surprised to learn that they are making “smut”, as she puts it. RJ explains his artistic ambitions to show that a dirty film can still be a good movie and asks her when she became “such an idiot.”

You might think Lorraine in her noble piety is going to outlast all the slashers right around that time. Although I won’t reveal the murder order, I will say that the mayhem in “X”, although it is fueled by sexual fear and lasciviousness, is not tipped off by this. Lorraine feels moved by the joy of making the movie and wants to be a part of it. RJ is now unable to control his girlfriend’s desires. Repression is more likely than lust to get you killed at “X.”

Let’s now talk about the older couple. They are Howard (Stephen Ure), and Pearl (Goth). Their names are, once again, unrecognizable with prosthetics. We learn that Pearl still longs for Maxine in tender scenes with her. (Pearl’s make-up looks like the mother from “Psycho.”) Once a beautiful woman who could make her husband do whatever she wanted, he’s too old to be in love. These feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and the children out back making a porno are dangerous.

Once the killings begin, “X” loses some power. It would have been stronger if Pearl had been played by an older actor. Although Goth plays both characters, it adds to the sense that they are linked. A WWI-era prequel centered around Pearl as a younger woman was already shot. However, the artificiality of Pearl’s appearance leaves one side out of the “X” young-old conflict.

This is still a strong genre filmmaking effort by West, who is also a writer-director for horror films and thrillers. Eliot Rockett’s cinematography is vibrant. There’s an arresting shot of Maxine naked in a pool while an alligator follows her. They are all excellent actors. The film combines two genres that have been friends for a long time — slashers, pornography — and “X” creates a compelling shotgun marriage of these films.

Motion Picture Association of America has rated “X” an A24 release R for its strong bloody violence, gore, strong sexual content and language. Running time: 105 mins. Three stars out four.