Director: Ti West (USA). Year of Release: 2022
1979, a field in Texas in the middle of nowhere. A small police team has been called to a crime scene. An axe lies embedded into the wooden floorboards. Stepping over a bloody white shroud, they go into a barn-type house, first heading upstairs where the evangelical channel is blaring from the black and white telly. One of the policemen calls to the sarge that he has to see this. Sarge heads down towards the cellar and flashes his torch down the rickety wooden stairs. Fade to black.
Twenty-four hours earlier. A rag-tag group of hippies are getting into a van in Houston. They’re about to record a film, directed by RJ, whose pretentiousness is clear from both his name and his unnecessary facial hair. RJ is a would-be auteur, eager to make an artistic masterpiece, though it soon becomes clear that they’re really going to make a seedy porn film “The Farmer’s Daughter”. RJ is accompanied by the film’s producer Wayne, mouthy, loud and resplendent in a cowboy hat.
Also on board is Wayne’s girlfriend Maxine, who is determined to make it in the movies whatever it takes. She regularly snorts coke and for much of the film wears dungaree shorts and nothing else. Bobby-Lynne has bubbly blonde hair and a Marilyn white dress. Her boyfriend Jackson will be the leading man. The party is completed with RJ’s girlfriend Lorraine, a shy woman with a cross necklace, who is recording the sound and who Wayne regularly refers to as Church Mouse.
When they arrive at the barn where they’re planning to shoot their film, the audience feels a little déja-vu. Wayne addresses the owner, Howard, telling him that they’d spoken on the phone. Howard is not impressed, and threatens Wayne with a shotgun. Eventually, they make their peace and Howard sends the youngsters to a neighbouring barn, warning them that he’s got his eyes on them.
As they are negotiating, Maxine notices a ghostly apparition, staring at them through an upstairs window. We are later introduced to Pearl, Howard’s wife, who is losing some of her mental awareness, but has not lost any of her sexual desire. She tries to have sex with Howard, who is reluctant to continue, as it might bring on a heart attack. This imbues in Pearl an even greater sense of resentment for the young people who are still capable of things she fears she is losing.
Much of the middle of the film consists of a number of great set pieces. There is any number of jump shots of people suddenly appearing when they are not expected – whose scariness lies in their banality. And there is a superb scene filmed from directly above of Maxine swimming naked in a lake, slowly returning to the shore, blithely unaware that she is being pursued by an alligator.
Later on, there is a scene which is both shocking and inspired. A woman lies in bed, alone and scared at all the fucked up things that are going on that night. From the other side of the bed, a hand caresses her and tries to calm her down. At first she believes that the hand belongs to her boyfriend. In fact, although the hand belongs to someone else, it is covered with her boyfriend’s blood, blood which gradually covers the woman’s body as the caressing continues.
It sometimes feels that X is trying too hard. For example, it takes great care to make us aware that we are in the late 1970s – from Jackson’s Afro and his two terms in Nam, to Wayne’s anticipation of the nascent “video nasty” era when film makers can sell porn for people to watch at home. One murder scene almost inevitably takes place while Don’t Fear the Reaper is playing on the car radio. Just how much money have Blue Oyster Cult made by loaning this one song to the horror genre?
The repeated presence of tele-evangelists reminds us that this is the year before President Reagan became a thing. The hippie idealism of the 1960s is shrivelling to an unhappy end, and the sexual revolution is experiencing its last gasp before the emergence of AIDS. You get a sense of some of this in the film, but nothing really is done with it. You get the feeling that director Ti West saw some interesting things here that he should do something with, but wasn’t really sure what.
Similarly, the young Maxine and elderly Pearl are played by the same actress Mia Goth. This feels like it should be meaningful, but is it really? What is the film trying to say? That young people may feel liberated, but they’ll eventually end up as murderous old bigots? That doesn’t fit the feel of the film. Maybe West is trying to say something else entirely, but it feels like the motivation for the double casting was more because it looks cool than for any reason that helps with the plot.
A scene where Pearl and Howard have sex may have been intended as a plea that old people have sexual needs too, but in tonight’s showing it just provoked laughter. Because old people having sex is just funny, innit? The scene may have been intended to make a profound point, but point didn’t get noticed by the late night horror crowd. (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with the late night horror crowd, of whom I am a member, It’s just a question of horses for courses).
X has some great individual scenes, and would like to say something profound, but ultimately doesn’t have the depth to carry this off. It’s the sort of film that someone like RJ would make. This is not – entirely – meant as criticism. It contains many obvious strengths, and does what it does pretty well. You just get the feeling that it’s not quite as good as it thinks it is.
Chalk it up as an honourable failure. Definitely worth a visit, but not one to think too much about.