The appropriately titled X takes place in 1979, when Houston strip club owner Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) decides to make his own porn film. He goes out to rural south Texas with strippers Maxine and Bobby-Lynne (Mia Goth and Brittany Snow); Jackson, a well-endowed Marine friend (Kid Cudi, here billed under his given name of Scott Mescudi); RJ, the pretentious filmmaker who wrote the script (Owen Campbell); and RJ’s girlfriend and sound tech Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). They rent a Civil War-era boarding house from an ancient couple (Stephen Ure and Mia Goth, both under heavy old-age makeup) without telling them what they’re doing. Big mistake.
This movie wears its influences from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on its sleeve, even though New Zealand stands in for our state’s swamp country — should no one tell Sam Elliott, or should everyone? Writer-director Ti West indulges in some horror-film tropes that are so old (like the doll parts kept by the old couple in the main house) that you wonder if he’s trolling us, and he sometimes falls in love with his displays of technique, like the imitations of Super 8 film and the split screens he resorts to when Bobby-Lynne sings “Landslide” during a break in the filming. The premise that the cast and crew are being done in by jealous old people who can’t have sex anymore is fine as far as it goes, but I can’t help feeling that something cleverer could have been done with it. At least they could have given the characters funny porn names. West’s lack of feel for comedy prevents this movie from being better.
That said, I find this to be the most sustained work by West, who has shown considerable talent in his Western In a Valley of Violence and his Irish horror film The Innkeepers. It’s amusing when RJ goes on about how acting in porn is an example of enlightened sexuality and then changes his tune abruptly when Lorraine tells him she wants to do a scene in the movie with Jackson. The director is at his best with slow-burn thrills like the one when Maxine goes skinny-dipping in the pond on the property — not many horror films make you want to scream “Turn around!” at a character when she’s in the middle of water. Goth is an odd-looking British actress who has appeared in many a horror film (A Cure for Wellness, Suspiria), and while she’s good as the Texas porn actress with a nasty coke habit and a horror of her old life, she’s tremendous as the old lady who gets confused sometimes and has a creepy obsession with Maxine’s body. X is playing in many multiplexes, but it feels like it belongs in grungy theaters with sticky floors and flickering lobby lights, where you can better appreciate its disreputable thrills.
Starring Mia Goth and Martin Henderson. Written and directed by Ti West. Rated R.