An ode to 1970s grindhouse cinema, “X” finds “The House of the Devil” writer-director Ti West back in his wheelhouse, painstakingly recreating the era’s look and feel as well as its exploitative content.
The year is 1979. Six ambitious and enterprising young Houstonians with aspirations of fame, fortune and artistry decide to have a go at making “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a low-budget dirty movie aimed at boosting the cast and crew’s dreams of fame and fortune.
Maxine (Mia Goth), a coked-up stripper working at Bayou Burlesque, thinks this is just the ticket to international stardom. Her boyfriend, Wayne (Martin Henderson, “The Gloaming”), acts as the archetypically gung-ho executive producer who talks a great game. Though ostensibly influenced by avant-garde cinema and the French New Wave, director R.J. (Owen Campbell, “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To”) needs to start at the bottom in order to cut his teeth in filmmaking. His girlfriend and boom operator Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, 2022’s “Scream”) is a prude who doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into. Vietnam vet Jackson (Scott Mescudi a/k/a Kid Cudi) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) round out the cast.
While in their “Plowing Service” van en route to a Texas farm for their location shoot, they rubberneck at the sight of a cow carcass, the first of the film’s many casualties. There’s a closeup of splatter where rubber meets the roadkill, a sign of things to come. “X” foretells much of its proceedings either through imagery or dialogue, so it’s a bit mind-boggling that West asked attendees at the SXSW Film Festival premiere to be circumspect regarding spoiling; he himself doles out foreshadowing and corny innuendos like candy on Halloween. Even ominous musical cues drop early and often.
Upon the “Daughter” cast and crew’s arrival at the farm, they are greeted by hostile old man Howard (Stephen Ure, “Mortal Engines”) and his shotgun. He seems to have forgotten all about his phone conversation with Wayne and mistakes him for someone “from the county.” Meanwhile, his wife, Pearl (also Goth), creepily peers out from the window. Wayne, apparently, neglected to mention he was bringing an entire crew, and Howard does not like the look of the lot of them. He asks for their discretion, mentioning offhand that Pearl is unwell and can be triggered.
With Goth in dual roles, obviously, there are some thematic pairings going on. In addition to being a menacing presence who is exceedingly handsy, Pearl, a failed dancer, represents the fate Maxine fears most, rotting away in anonymity. While Pearl is secretly peering at Maxine and Jackson in action on the set, flashes of Pearl are spliced into the sex scene in progress. This is certainly a high-concept genre exercise, although it’s unclear where West is headed with it. The killings are not consistent with this theme and don’t particularly make sense through this lens. The implicit lesbianism here also feels gratuitous.
There are also parallels between “X” itself and “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the plot of which involves Jackson’s character turning to a farm for help when his car breaks down, and Bobby-Lynne’s titular character suggesting they get it on before daddy gets home to give him a lift. They don’t want to make daddy angry — and the same can be said about the film crew and Howard.
“X” is as gleefully sleazy and gory as one might imagine. It’s pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to nudity — yes, even Pearl’s. Its first slasher scene is sustained as if the perpetrator has been waiting for a long time to do this. Peter Jackson’s WETA Workshop is responsible for the special effects, and its grotesqueness definitely recalls that from the New Zealand filmmaker’s early-career horror films, in a good way.
West runs the gamut of 1970s techniques like wipe transitions and split screens. The film-within-a-film has the requisite grainy 16mm look with Academy ratio. He deploys a red filter during a scene where so much blood is spilled that it completely covers the van’s headlights.
His decision to humanize and empathize with the villains is bold but doesn’t quite work to the benefit of a horror film. Generally, the less we know, the more is left to our imagination. (The film’s prequel, “Pearl,” also starring Goth, is apparently already in the can, and it’s difficult to see what else there is to say about this character.) West’s most interesting choice has little to do with period details: A televangelist (Simon Prast) is constantly on TV in the background, punctuating the entire film, true to the slasher subgenre’s overall sex-negativity.
The sound design is obnoxiously loud, which makes the performers’ Southern accents even more difficult to decipher, although the only audio in the film’s most effective scene is dripping water and buzzing flies.
Perhaps the real accomplishment of “X” and films like it is to recognize that there are indeed artistic and entertainment values in grindhouse cinema, which has only recently begun to be evaluated critically or deemed worthy candidates for preservation and restoration. If critics and scholars can engage with “X” and “The House of the Devil” on an academic level, it’s an easy jump to the films that begat the progeny.
“X” opens in US theaters March 18.