The Polygon team reports from the SXSW 2022 media fair with a look at the next wave of upcoming independent publications in science fiction, horror and documentary.
The Devil’s House Director Ti West never left horror. It’s been almost a decade since his last horror film, The Sacramentbut he was busy in horror television, directing episodes of Scream: The TV Series, The Exorcist, them, and more. With , he returns to his screen roots x, a deliciously gory, delightfully funny homage to 1970s indie filmmaking that lures viewers into a false sense of security with a hilarious hangout film, and then unleashes hell on screen. By the time the credits roll, it makes sense that A24 would confirm this as that of the distribution house first horror franchise.
In 1979, strip club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson) decides to bring together a group of friends, employees, and a few idealistic filmmaker-loving tagalongs to create a pornographic movie that will make them all famous. There’s Wayne’s girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lane (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi) who will star in the film. Of course, this won’t be just any porn movie. As writer, director, editor and cinematographer RJ (Owen Campbell) explains, he’s here to prove that “it’s possible to make a good dirty movie.” He’s ready to use avant-garde techniques and all, and he’s brought along his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) as a boom mic operator. Of course, given that this is a ragtag production, cutbacks are made – notably the cast and crew live in a remote farmhouse owned by an elderly couple who reportedly don’t know what they’re up to. Soon the bodies begin to fall.
Although the premise of turning a porn shoot into a horror show could easily lead to a flaky parody, Ti West has more in mind. The adult film’s angle serves two purposes – it gives a meta spin to the almost mandatory nudity and adult content of R-rated slasher films and uses the adult industry to talk about indie filmmaking in general. The first half of the film is a love letter to independent filmmaking, to the satisfaction of grabbing a group of like-minded friends and a camera and going somewhere remote to make films. At the Q&A following the film’s SXSW premiere, Ti West spoke about the similarities between horror and porn in the 1970s – specifically, the desire to break free from studio systems and make a name for yourself with nothing but a good idea.
Given that this is a horror film about a group of young people in Texas, there are clear homages to Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially in the beginning where Westt follows a group of friends enjoying themselves unaware of the carnage that awaits them. West carefully waits to reveal the carnage, focusing on the character work and creating a spooky mood through long takes and ominous cutaways. (In the A24 way!) Not only is the story dark and doomful – West clearly enjoys making this an entertaining comedy as well. Ambiguities and crude jokes fill the first half of the film, like the team’s van reading “Plowing Services” aloud. Even when the killings begin, most of them have a light-hearted tone.
This is thanks in no small part to the cast, particularly Brittany Snow, who as a wannabe porn star makes for a hilarious return to horror for the actress. Meanwhile, Mescudi does an impressive job as a guy full of bravery and confidence, a veteran who fears nothing even when he should. Still, this is Mia Goth’s film: she takes on dual roles as the main character and as the homeowner Pearl, the subject of a proposed spinoff prequel. Goth infuses both characters with a burning desire to achieve fame and a deep fear of losing it. Even when buried under tons of makeup, her performance shines through.
As funny as x sometimes gets whoever, it’s just as effective at instilling fear as it is at provoking laughter. Once the killings begin, West unleashes heavy blood and entertaining death scenes enhanced by effective, novel editing that West and co-editor David Kashevaroff use to amplify the horrors or create new ones. From smash cuts and juxtapositions, to cutting away from a kill to an unrelated scene, to screen wipes and split screens. x makes for an unpredictable experience.
As great as the makeup is, it unfortunately follows the unfortunate trend of villainizing the elderly, meaning that aging naturally turns people into vicious villains. Get ready for unnecessary scenes of naked older people intended to suggest that aging is disgusting and scary.
Tired stereotypes aside, however, West delivers an audience-pleasing return to horror that’s a love letter to the genre without becoming a parody. That is no Texas Chainsaw Massacre Rip off but it’s still the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie of the year Ti West is back – may he not leave us so soon.
x hits theaters on March 18th.