Saturday, August 5, 2023

X / ***1/2 (2022)

It comes to our notice early on in Ti West’s “X” that his probable casualties are far from being conventional pop-up targets. They occupy space in the movie with a sort of cheery displacement, fully cognizant of the danger that comes with their situation without letting their behaviors be entirely dictated by it. The scene: six young Texans with a penchant for southern euphemisms gather in a van, drive out into the country and rent the spare house on the property of an elderly couple – one of whom always seems to answer the door while holding a shotgun. Their objective: to turn this rickety old acquisition into the setting of an amateur porno, populated by aspiring adult film actors who have tagged along for their own slice of fame in the new frontier of home video. The ringleader, Wayne (Martin Henderson), foresees all the obligatory elements of fortune in this undertaking, but what he and the rest of his entourage are not able to successfully predict is that they’ve wandered into yet another backwoods nightmare of violent mayhem. The surprise, this time, is that they don’t go down without at least holding their own intellectually against the morose and cynical hunters they are destined to confront.

The movie opens with an ominous inclination. In the silence of countryside morning, two local sheriffs wander into a bloody crime scene straight out of Texas Chainsaw territory – pieces of human bodies strewn across the front lawn, a shotgun on the wood floor, corpses propped up near the musty entrance of the old house, and an old television set in the corner of the front room playing the fiery sermon of a preacher. These are the overtures of countless horror films set in the grand old south, but our curiosity is piqued by a discovery they make off-screen just before the screen fades to black: something in the basement that we are not supposed to know about until much later, after the film has gone through and retraced its steps. Who are the people who lived there? Were they the ones who caused this grizzly scene, or did their horny visitors have some part to play in the final death display? The thing about the deep south in movie slashers is that it provides no shortage of unique maniacs, even after the likes of Leatherface and the mountain men in “Deliverance” have all but diminished the principal expectations.

Pleasant surprises are one thing, but total and audacious deviations from formula are another. “X” breaks almost as many rules as it creates, adhering to standard just long enough to lull us into complacency before it twists, turns and then piles on one shocking scene after another, until what we are left with in the end is a sense of breathless delight. That may not be much of a shock to moviegoers already well-versed in the director’s filmography – his own “House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers” already did wonders in flipping the scripts on haunted house and ghost stories, respectively – but even in this age of idea saturation there is only so far you can stretch common sense for the sake of a payoff. As I was watching this material unfold to familiar rhythms and sardonic self-awareness, I reached a point in my focus where not only did I not know what to expect, but was genuinely stunned to discover how some of its original ideas stayed within the plausible limits of human logic. When was the last time you saw a horror movie that performed such ambitious tricks while still keeping itself grounded in reality?

It helps, of course, to have stars that look comfortable in the material. The six who make up the adventurous entourage of would-be pornographers consist of an arsenal of eclectic personalities – including Jackson (Kid Cudi), the male adult star whose war experience is almost as large as his appendage; RJ (Owen Campbell), the cameraman who loves avant-garde cinema so much that it informs all his camera angles and shots; Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), a buxom blond who talks in cheery euphemisms while remaining absent-minded of nearby personality conflicts; and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the sound girl who is silent and judgmental through most of the shoot, until she decides she wants her own shot at adult film fame in the eleventh hour. Their activities and behaviors are driven as if conducted in a closed world of their making, away not just from civilization but also the cloud that hangs over them at the main house just across the hill. Only Maxine (Mia Goth), the star of their little production, seems to possess the cognizance to know something odd is occurring around them, and when she is invited into the musty corridors to engage with the old man’s fragile wife, she casts an ominous proclamation that is both sad and startling, especially for anyone of a certain age who might find it all familiar. If age is indeed the cruelest trick fate can play on us, imagine how it must feel to realize it can be weaponized against an ignorant youth.

West builds all these details up via a framework of well-informed production values – sparse sound cues, long shots with few cuts, strategic camera placement and uncomfortably prolonged images that exist at the precipice of bottled tension. Not to be outdone by the key moment when Maxine and the elderly woman are involved in their uneasy encounter indoors, the best image in the entire film occurs just before they meet – all while she is skinny-dipping in the nearby lake while the old woman watches her from afar. We instinctively surmise her voyeurism is the first act of would-be antagonism, yet a spectacular overhead shot shows the young woman sharing the lake with an alligator, who moves in for its meal ever-so-slowly just before the girl reaches for the wooden pier. Is this unsettling near-miss a metaphor of what is to come, or a framing device to establish her as the lucky survivor in the eventual slaughter? West’s humor is that it could be either, and that the alligator may serve an added purpose when everything hits the fan.

What follows a straightforward second act of pornographic antics in the guest house, insightful personal discoveries and musings on the nature of monogamy, is a series of climactic sequences that seem inspired by a vision far beyond those ordinarily entertained by directors of southern slashers. We have some level of understanding of the devious possibilities – especially given the subtle nods early on to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” this movie’s nearest cousins – but when the first big violent jolt arrives, it’s like having a wind knocked out of you. I was stunned and overjoyed by the way West’s screenplay takes all the familiar conventions, reduces them to red herrings and then sets the villains loose in an unpredictable laboratory of chaos and mayhem. Sometimes the results are funny, other times blatantly self-aware and modern. But there is a sophisticated edge to it all that hasn’t been this rich since Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever,” also about ordinary horror tropes after a devious screenplay pulls the rug out from underneath audiences. Perhaps there’s a reason beyond mere entertainment why the idea of “X” has already inspired a prequel and a sequel, due to be released next year. Old dishes remain dependable if served with the right spice, and here is a movie that plays like the first course of a meal too delectable to turn away from. 

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2022; Rated R; Running Time: 105 Minutes

Mia Goth: Maxine
Jenna Ortega: Lorraine
Brittany Snow: Bobby-Lynne
Kid Cudi: Jackson
Martin Henderson: Wayne
Owen Campbell: RJ

Produced by Jared Connon, Kid Cudi, Dennis Cummings, Jacob Jaffke, Harrison Kreiss, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Karina Manashil, Peter Phok, Kevin Turen and Ti West; Directed and written by Ti West

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