dir: Ti West
Finally, a decent remake of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s about bloody time.
No, it’s not a literal remake, unlike the appallingly dunderheaded update / remake / sequel / reboot that came out a couple of months ago, but it’s closer in spirit, aesthetics and setting, being Texas in the late 1970s (despite, you know, actually being filmed in New Zealand, of all places.)
X is a surprisingly good film. I say surprisingly because I did not expect it to be such a strong, well-thought out film, horror film or otherwise. And despite being an out and out horror flick, for the first hour you wouldn’t be certain of that, and in the last half hour you’d have no doubt.
The funny thing is, this flick has a theme, or almost a moral. And it’s not the one that “classic” horror flicks from the 1980s had, which is that young people should be punished for wanting sex and drugs and rock & roll, although it’s in parallel to that, in a way.
It’s about how terrible thwarted desire can be, how poisonous to the soul. Thwarted desire leads to mass murder, don’t you know?
A group of youngish libertines in the 1970s decide to travel to the sticks in order to make a “high quality” porno movie. The mood of the era is a dark one, with a heavy, moralising tone cast over everything. The only televisions we ever see have footage of a fire and brimstone preacher damning all us pleasureseekers to hell, droning on and on about how damned we all are for our libidinous, sinful ways.
This crew of travelling pornographers, on the most part, have zero qualms about what they’re doing. There is no coercion, no sadism, none of the callous disregard that generally typifies the “industry”. It’s a group of relatively young people just doing their thing, hoping they can elevate the “art form”, and having a good time along the way.
Is that a fantasy? I guess. It’s like, remember the early bits of Boogie Nights where everyone is having a great time, everyone’s high and there are no consequences to anyone’s actions yet?
Yet. The oldest of the group is the “producer”, ie. the one who intends to profit the most from the endeavour. Wayne (New Zealand’s own Martin Henderson, long a mainstay of Aussie television) wears a ten-gallon hat even in places and at times where you would think the hat isn’t really necessary, but he never wants you to forget that he’s Texan. Long on drawl, and constantly yammering, he is the gift of the gab grifter who’s looking at the creation of an adult movie as his last chance at hitting the big time.
What an era, where thinking making a dirty movie will make you a rich man and make up for all your other failures as a human being. His fiancé Maxine (Mia Goth) also happens to be one of the performers, and she too hopes that this film will make her the most desired star in all of America.
I… don’t know if that’s a noble ambition, but she’s certainly prepared to give it her all.
The two other performers, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and African-American Vietnam vet Jackson (Kid Cudi) are a couple, and clearly have no trouble performing on camera, in fact seem to delight in it. So it’s almost like everybody’s happy with the arrangement, the setup, the purpose, the objective.
Naturally, you need some people in the mix who aren’t as cool with everything, in order to have some tension. RJ (Owen Nichols) is the actual director / cameraman, and he has pretensions that he’s somehow better than these lowly pornographic performers, and not only that, but that his director’s eye and skills will somehow allow him to transcend this film’s smutty origins, and propel him to the serious heights of serious cinema, eventually.
In other words, he’s a delusional fuckhead, but he’s harmless. His girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), on the other hand, who’s doing the sound on the movie, handling the boom microphone, seems uncomfortable with all the free love on hand. She is, of course, labelled a prude, to which she takes offence. No-one likes being called a prude, for some reason.
The porno they’re making is called The Farmer’s Daughters, and is as generic I guess as the kind of movie we’re meant to think off. A guy’s car breaks down, and then he literally goes to a particular farm, and proceeds to have sex with the farmer’s daughters. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but I guess it’s enough of a premise to hang a bunch of sex scenes off of.
The first scene has Bobby-Lynne making a few comments to the man, then a few innuendos, and then it’s on for young and old. It is shot and looks, and I imagine sounds like what those retro flicks used to be like. Bobby-Lynne has an unabashed, comfortable and confident assertiveness with all of her scenes, never taking a step back or not owning any room she’s in. I read an interview with the actor, Brittany Snow, probably best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, where she said she attacked the role with the energy she imagines was the way a young Dolly Parton moved through the world when her career started. I guess, though it’s probably unfair to a living saint like Dolly to say that she was the inspiration for a fairly gratuitous purpose, there’s an unapologetic self-assurance that makes a lot of sense in context.
She’s not going to apologise for enjoying sex on camera to a church mouse like Lorraine, as they keep calling her. Performance-wise, it’s probably perfectly in synch with the “Golden Era” starlets, and how they were expected to look, act, perform, whatever the right word is. But as she tells Lorraine when the camera is off, it’s still just a performance; she’s faking it because it’s not real.
Maxine, who dreams of some kind of stardom, is something else, someone else entirely. She has a kind of fierce intensity that is a bit frightening, even from behind all that blue eyeshadow. She also likes doing bumps of cocaine quite frequently, and I’m not saying this flick glamorises cocaine use, but it certainly doesn’t paint it in a negative light. There’s no negative, as far as I could tell, that stems from her use. It just seems to make her even more confident.
Her scene is next up with Jackson, as another of the farmer’s endless daughters, and I’m pretty much sure we’re meant to gather from her performance, from the abandon with which she attacks the scene, that it’s transporting, something transcendent, so much so that even Lorraine is moved to contemplate testing the boundaries of her relationship. Everyone looks on in awe.
Resenting being called a prude, and deciding to teach her boyfriend a lesson, Lorraine decides she needs to perform as well.
Jesus Christ, people, it’s not that easy. You can’t go from zero to porn star just like that. I mean, I have no idea, but it sure pisses off RJ, who seems distraught afterwards.
I mean, he had to film it, and if Lorraine was in the scene, who was going to hold the boom mic?
Just one thing. Someone else, also, was watching the earlier scene, when Maxine was riding Jackson like she was the winning jockey in the Kentucky Derby: all of these shenanigans have been transpiring in a guest house on a very rural property outside of Houston, probably just down the street from the Sawyer family. The two old coots who live there, are so very old. Pearl (also played by Mia Goth under a tonne of prosthetic makeup) is very old, but a fierce fire of love and passion denied still burns in her chest. Her gruff husband Howard (Stephen Ure) is often toting a shotgun around, but doesn’t seem like he’s still into the pleasures of the flesh. He does say later on, that he can’t do whatever it is that Pearl wants, because his heart can’t take it.
Their favourite, and only television viewing is the preacher who rails against the sinful, on how much punishment should rain down upon those who enjoy life and each other in opposition to the word of the Lord.
But Pearl needs love. Pearl wants love. Pearl wants to be loved. And if she don’t get what she wants? Well, thwarted desire can lead to so many, many, many deaths.
The first hour of the flick has no violence that I recall, but does have a scene where Maxine decides to go for a swim in a lake. She strips down, swims out, luxuriates in the sunlight and the cool water. Pearl’s been watching her, delighted by the sight of her youth, perhaps, but Maxine doesn’t know, doesn’t see her.
She also doesn’t know that there’s an alligator in the lake. She languidly swims back to the dock, unaware that it’s even coming for her. She gets out, it’s just missed her, but she never notices.
But we see it all. Pearl’s hunger is like that alligator. Maxine never even finds out about the alligator.
The hour I’m talking about, other than the sex scenes, is mostly chatting, a fair bit of foreshadowing but mostly just chatter between these people, almost all of whom will be dead by the 90 minute mark. I think that it actually works well, for this flick, considering that it embodies so many clichés, or references to other movies, whether porno movies, horror movies of the era, or the clichés surrounding them. It doesn’t exactly deconstruct them, nor does it subvert them, but it uses them in a dare I say it playful and knowing way, which reinforce some of the themes of the movie while still involving multiple scenes where people die in brutal or artful, or brutishly artful ways.
They also have an easy-going chemistry in those scenes, the majority of the cast, just a chill hang out vibe. And of course Brittany Snow has to show off by singing an acoustic version of Landslide by Fleetwood Mack, as the calm before the storm.
I think making Mia Goth play both Maxine and Pearl wasn’t completely the greatest idea, even as I completely understand that it means the mirroring of their paths in life becomes even stronger when you realise it’s the same person separated by, let’s say, 70 years. Maxine now, in 1979, in all her glory, is what Pearl wished she could be in 1918 and onwards, but the world, always cruel, denied her then and denies her now.
I may be overthinking it, but I think this flick does really well what a lot of horror flicks no longer do as well. I’m never going to make the argument that the conversations they have sitting around (post-filming sex scenes) are that illuminating, but they work on two key levels: yes, there’s the self-serving arguments people (especially men) of that era about how great free love and open relationships are, but then we also get to see how hollow that all is once the killings start.
Because, after all, what Pearl and Howard have is true love, don’t you know.
The killings tend towards more the ironic, the ‘clever’ or the artsy, and that’s okay. I’m not a fan of the sadistic, so I’ll take the other three any time of the day. I think it actually works really well, ends on a very strong note (that also precludes sequels, thankfully, so there better not be a franchise out of this).
And Maxine gets to reign supreme, which is perhaps well deserved. Watch out Hollywood!
X was a lot of fun. Best horror flick I’ve seen in ages upon ages. Everyone puts in solid work on a film that probably had a tiny budget.
9 times don’t be looking through holes in doors ever, ever out of 10
“I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” – none of us want to, and yet… - X