There’s been a lot written about Ti West’s X and its resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The resemblance would be obvious even if the hype machine hadn’t repeated it so often. The lonely white house, the rural desolation, the panicked run through tall grass, the sense that the big proud city-folk are where they aren’t wanted. Even the first-act van ride that establishes all the characters. It’s all here.
And folks, I have seen so many movies where the main characters stop at a gas station and act obnoxious. I’m kind of tired.
But what struck me as the camera panned through the cluttered, unsanitary home of Howard and Pearl was how I had seen all of this in the kitchen of Resident Evil 7. It has Resi’s filthy design and certainty old people will leap out and fuck up your hands.
The story follows an “independent” — read porn — film crew who have rented a cabin on Howard’s property in rural Texas. Of cast members, there are three. There are the “farmer’s daughters” Bobby-Lyne (Brittany Snow) and Maxine (Mia Goth). Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi) is the man who just wants a ride to town. The crew: producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), director RJ (Owen Campbell), and sound recordist Lorraine (Jenny Ortega). Everyone except RJ calls Lorraine “church mouse” because of her silent, disapproving demeanor.
You expect these characters to fall into types, and they do. But not neatly. What X does that is its own is develop flawed characters you like. For example, there’s Maxine — the fame-chaser with an already worrisome coke habit. “I have cosmopolitan tastes!” she shouts at Wayne, who has heard this rant before.
Maxine gets a lot of alone time with Ti West’s camera, though, that shows us who she is when she isn’t performing for her peers, and that is a scared young woman from rural Texas who is determined to escape.
This sympathy for the characters extends to Howard and Pearl, the ancient homeowners who serve as the film’s antagonists. They have many touching scenes both together and alone. Few slasher movies ask you to feel for the killers. It’s a dangerous game to play, but Ti West navigates it well. The result is a story that’s more about youth, fear of aging, and resentment of the young than creative kill scenes.
The film crew itself recalls a time in the 70s when pornography was threatening to break into the mainstream. RT insists that what he’s making isn’t pornography. “It is possible to make a good dirty movie,” RJ exclaims when his girlfriend Lorraine calls the film “smut.” By the end of the 1970s, the art-porn movie had already peaked. RJ’s opinions seem somewhat anacronistic.
Since the sixties, many directors had been trying to bring cinematic values to pornography. If RJ was interested, what little we see of “The Farmer’s Daughters” would recall the movies of Joe Sarno (Inga), Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet), or Just Jaeckin (Emmanuelle, Gwendoline. But no, it’s a parody of porn.
I am not sure if this is RJ not understanding the genre, RJ making cynical excuses, or Ti West’sown ignorance. Either way, the attention to detail payed to horror movies is curiously absent in the film’s “erotic” side. Which is more about the philosophy of erotic filmmaking than it is actually erotic.
More bothersome to me, especially given the themes around aging, is that 28-year-old Mia Goth plays the ancient Pearl. Although there’s a lot of “I used to be just like you” between Pearl and Maxine, this is not a supernatural film and there’s no apparent reason a (much) older actress could not have played this part.
The oldest cast member, Stephen Ure, is sixty-four. He can bring at least a bit of nuance to his role. Mia plays Pearl convincingly, but it’s still a young person imagining being old. One of West’s smart choices was having the young characters chatter about what happens to you when you get old. Explaning why she can separate love from sex, Bobby-Lynne says “One day, we’re gonna be too old to fuck,” which is certainly a topic of conversation between Pearl and her husband Howard.
Mia can play an old woman, but an actual old woman would have given this much more nuance. Here, it seems West traded authenticity for a clever makeup effect. Perhaps the prequel, shot immediately afterwards, or the rumored sequel can justify this decision, but nothing in this movie does.
X was well-liked by many, and I am impatient with movies that use homage as a marketing tool, so your milage may vary. Also, maybe you don’t think movies about aging ought to include old people. X is perhaps better cinema than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it is not a scarier or more effective film. In fact, it’s blunted a bit by its own self-conciousness about movie-making and A24’s typical elevated earnestness. The best way to honor seventies movies is to watch them and talk about them, not try to recapture the spirit in your own movie. We have already captured the spirit. You can still see it. Sometimes it even has a 4k release.
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