A24, the American independent production company behind such gems as Midsommar, Uncut Gems and The Lighthouse, has just released a unique slasher horror film written and directed by Ti West (The House of the Devil). Borrowing a look straight out of 1970s classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, X may feel like it was plucked out of the past, but it’s decidedly fresh with regards to how it deals with pornography — and that’s surprising coming from Hollywood, which has a history of stereotyping the industry.
Set on an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere, six characters check into creepy lodgings owned by an even creepier old man and somehow his even creepier wife. There they plan to shoot an adult film that is going to make them rich and famous. The good-natured producer assembles a cast of three for his production – a waifish, headstrong dreamer, a Marilyn Monroe-esque sex pot and the male talent – a black Vietnam vet. Capturing the shots is an intellectual nerd who thinks he’s Bergman and his timid girlfriend who he’s wrangled into being the unwilling boom operator.
Right away you know things aren’t right with the caretakers, especially the old lady who looks longingly at the waif hoping a piece of her youth will rub off on her. Soon after she sees her performing a sex scene, the killing starts. But not for the reason you may think.
Traditionally in horror films, being promiscuous has always been a catalyst for murder. Though the genre prides itself on being liberal, it still answers to the Puritanical undertones that pulse through our society: enjoy sex and you’ll be punished. But the murders in X are perpetrated for a different reason. The old woman longs to sleep with her husband and is denied because of age. In other words, the murders arise out of jealousy not out of a lesson about ‘morality’.
That’s what’s so surprising about X. It celebrates sex, rather than condemn it. Its message is to enjoy it as long as you can because someday, you’ll be too old to partake — and you’ll miss it. In fact, you may miss it so much you could end up chopping someone’s head off in frustration.
Whether it meant to or not, the film shines a light on why people need the adult industry. For many, there’s no outlet to explore their own sexuality other than peeping in on others’ fun. Without pornography, there’d probably be a heck of a lot more axe murderers out there. In X the people who are deranged are not the ones having promiscuous sex, it’s the ones who aren’t.
In what I consider the best scene of the movie, the characters hang out in the living room after a day of filming. The timid girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) asks why they do what they do. The actors respond by going into a litany of reasons. Lorraine thinks on this, then shocks everyone into revealing that she, too, now wants to be in the film.
It should be cheesy but for some reason it works; you root for her and feel she’s made the right choice. Meanwhile, her filmmaker boyfriend is appalled and tells the producer he won’t let her do it because she’s a “good girl.” You’re annoyed at him because he’s a hypocrite – hours ago he was gushing that he was creating art, so, you rejoice a little inside when (spoiler alert!) he’s the first victim. This is another way the film turns the mainstream conventional idea of porn being bad on its head: Lorraine’s the sane one for wanting to be in the film, he’s the jerk.
Granted, X wasn’t all a bed of roses in regards to its portrayal of the adult industry; it still caved to some of the same stereotypes so typical of Hollywood movies – namely the leads being a bunch of naïve, unintelligent hicks. Also, for a film that has “X” in its title, it’s ridiculous to see how sterilized the sex scenes were. Of course, you really can’t blame the filmmakers, they’re dealing with the bizarre MPAA who’ll give an X rating for showing sex naked below the waist while at the same time being fine with giving an R to film that glamorizes someone’s brains being splattered across the asphalt. But other than that, for a mainstream movie, X did a good job dealing with porn without commenting negatively upon the industry. It can be seen in theatres across the nation.