Porn and horror are often mentioned in the same breath, and finally we get a film overtly linking the two genres.
X is a sort of macabre love story couched in the guise of a horror story about a bunch of people making porn. That irony is hardly lost on the filmmakers, who certainly recognize the parallels ascribed in a mostly derisive, and not always unfair, way to the horror genre — certainly not with this film.
Set in 1979, a group of young people led by the slimy Wayne (Martin Henderson) rent a remote farmhouse on the property of an octogenarian couple in rural Texas. Their aim? To make an adult film and capitalize on the burgeoning home video market to become stars.
Maxine (Mia Goth) is convinced she will become a star, both in her own mind and by Wayne, whose main skill is manipulating young women into taking their clothes off. Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) is the randy veteran of these films. Her co-star, Jackson (Scott Mescudi), is a more literal veteran, with a trip to Vietnam in his recent past. RJ (Owen Campbell) is the camera operator who sees porn as a launching pad into more “legitimate” film work, and he drags his girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who looks down on porn, to operate the boom mic.
There they encounter Howard, an old man whose wife, Pearl, is more or less a shut-in, and the two of them are seemingly harmless, if predictably old-fashioned. But Pearl looks longingly at the young kids and the life she didn’t have in her own youth, and grows envious. Maybe too envious.
X certainly borrows from other better horror movies. The elevator pitch is practically The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with elements of Boogie Nights and even a dash of The Notebook, if Allie Calhoun had murderous impulses. The look certainly apes Tobe Hooper’s classic, with chest hair, tube tops and blue eyeshadow against tall grass and dusty plains.
But the carnage struggles to keep up. Pearl certainly isn’t nearly as physically imposing as Leatherface, nor does the couple’s depravity ever approach that of the Sawyer clan.
There are certainly limitations to a frail old woman as a horror movie slasher, and West takes advantage of the younger characters’ assumptions to adequately make Pearl a legitimate threat. After all, how could a little old lady be a killer?
But the victims fall into the time-tested trappings of the horror film, ambling off alone and unaware at night in the Texas wilderness where there’s more to worry about than rattlesnakes and alligators. But why should they worry? They’re far more concerned with sex than the violence.
And so, it turns out, is Pearl. She and Howard seem to have been married for years, and we get the impression she has been less than fulfilled over the years, both as a result of Howard’s age and the preacher raining down fire and brimstone on the television seemingly 24 hours a day. As a character, Pearl is thinly sketched but with tantalizing details that would have been much more welcome. Was this couple sexually repressed? Did they ever have children? Are they as jealous of these kids’ youth and promiscuity as they are repulsed by it?
We don’t get any of those juicier nuggets that could make X a more memorable film, instead focusing on the more lascivious aspect of what the kids are doing — debates on the artistic, financial and pleasurable merits of porn, a limp subplot involving Lorraine’s desire to be in a scene that throws RJ’s self-righteousness back into his own face, and a prologue that starts the film with its eventual aftermath as a way to get a couple of marshals the chance to make silly quips from beneath their Stetsons and Aviator shades.
The gore is considerable and relatively believable for the most part, but the characters are largely loathsome or, worse yet, too dull and vapid to care about even in the “these are people” sense, and the antagonists also aren’t interesting enough for us to root for them. It’s a carton of Neapolitan ice cream made of vanilla, vanilla bean, and French vanilla.
As the lead, Goth alternately stares blankly at the camera and wishes aloud to be a star, staring into the mirror like Dirk Diggler before his scene. She’s arguably the dullest character in the film not wearing a badge; Ortega has far more presence, and with multiple leading or near-leading roles in Scream (2022) and The Fallout, she’s a star on the rise. But her arc, arguably the film’s most interesting, concludes in an unfulfilling and abrupt way with a reaction that’s rather unreasonable given its circumstances.
And herein lies the problem with X: It’s all setup, no execution. It features a creative twist on the horror genre and memorable characters hidden somewhere in here, but gets lost in the same way countless other horror films have — through plot contrivances and misplaced focus.