In the late 1970s, two film genres that had long led a peripheral existence in dingy train station theaters and grindhouses were in their commercial heyday: slasher films and porn. Sex and violence entered into a symbiotic relationship in US exploitation cinema, beginning with Russ Meyer. Until John Carpenter introduced a few new rules with “Halloween”, which shortly afterwards cemented “Friday the 13th”.
For example: promiscuity leads to death. And: In the end, the babysitter survives. Co-creator Wes Craven later made fun of the ruleset with the meta-horror Scream.
Despite all the joy in quotations that director Ti West shows in “X”, his horror homage to the golden era of slasher films: Of course, his protagonists could have known in 1979 that a porn film might not be made on an abandoned farm in the back Texas should turn.
Especially not when the owner greets you with a shotgun. Tobe Hooper’s 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t appear to exist in the reality of “X,” but perhaps strip club owners and burlesque dancers weren’t particularly fond of the horror film.
To set the mood, porn entrepreneur Wayne (Martin Henderson) and his three starlets, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Jackson (Kid Cudi), and Maxine (Mia Goth), who coke at her mirror image, “I’m a fucking sex goddess,” get equally atmospheric receive. Don’t mess with Texas!
The guts of a cow crushed by a truck are strewn across the highway. The mood on Howard’s (Stephen Ure) farm is no less unsettling. On TV, a televangelist threatens sinners with death, and Howard’s mummy-like wife Pearl, a former beauty queen, casts suspicious glances at Maxime. The fact that both women are played by Mia Goth creates an interesting internal tension, but unfortunately West doesn’t really know what to do with it.
In any case, irony has not been lost on director Ti West, who has made a name for himself with ambitious horror films. For his first porn, Wayne has hired film student RJ (Owen Campbell), who fantasizes about artistic sex films (“like the French”), while his friend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who holds the mic, eyes the troupe skeptically.
“X” shows the same style that RJ dreams of in his porn, West takes both genres seriously – the sex scenes are shot on grainy 16mm material). Whereby the film-in-the-film “The Farmer’s Daughter” is not a second “Deep Throat”. And “X” isn’t an elevated horror of the “Hereditary” caliber either.
West relies on atmosphere as much as on jump scares. Eliot Rockett’s camera develops enough life of its own to free itself time and again from the economic dictates of the genre in extravagant plan sequences. Such cinephile gimmicks are not always expedient; best of all, no doubt, when Maxime is surprised by a curious crocodile while bathing skinny at night. West’s art-house aesthetic elevates “X” above the usual midnight merchandise, but it still remains (thankfully!) a dirty little horror film in the end.