If there's one thing I learned while watching Ti West's new horror flick, "X," it's that old people who live on secluded farms in the country should NEVER be underestimated.
That's what a group of young adult film actors in 1979 find out as they set up production for a new "movie" next to the home of an elderly couple with an extra ounce of crazy to their walk and talk. Trouble ensues with the landlords in uncomfortable and deadly ways when they catch the young crew shooting one of their scenes. Whether it's having a shotgun shoved in a face, or the older woman of the house getting a little too touchy, the young group starts to realize there are two kinds of freaky on this ranch: what's happening in front of the camera, and what's happening in the house across the grass.
From there, a seasoned horror film connoisseur doesn't exactly need a road map to figure out what happens and who lives or dies. Thankfully, outside of the cool kills and decreasing warm body count, there's a lot of ingenious levity and wild-eyed humor to West's script. After all, this is his preferred playground as a filmmaker. Before "X," he made films like "The House of the Devil," "V/H/S," "The Innkeepers," and a smattering of television episodes of horror stories. If the devil and fierce religion-hoarding are colliding and there's some aimless young minds willing to make every dumb move in the book as sacrificial lambs in that contest, West has a camera ready to shoot it. This movie is a pure, old fashioned scary movie lover's dream.
But the ingenious part is how West frames the story and the lens, keeping us off balance during the early going while gluing our attention spans to the seat. The onus is always on terror and blood, but it's not all he's after here. West also doesn't just use the adult film setup as a mere plot gimmick. Wayne (Martin Henderson) is a producer who wants to blow open the door on the emerging business genre, something he would like to do instead of wearing a hard hat for a living.
The middle ground between making a movie and shooting sex scenes plays a good part in the script instead of just being window dressing for gory kills. Wayne has the stars (Brittany Snow's Bobby-Lyne and Kid Cudi's Jackson) lined up to feature, with an ambitious film director R.J. (Owen Campbell) and his assistant/girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) in tow. But it's Wayne's alluring girlfriend that he calls the "X" factor of the production. Maxine (Mia Goth) also catches the eye of the old woman of the house, for better or worse.
While the cast is solid across the board, especially Henderson bending his usual film persona to play a scoundrel thirsting for opportunity, it's Goth who steals the show. It's the same thing she did in the Robert Pattinson-led "High Life" and the Dakota Johnson-led "Suspiria": convict your attention for two hours with eyes that don't give you a hint as to whether or not her heart is inviting or poisonous. The English-Brazilian actress is building a fine repertoire in the horror genre as someone who likes to dive into the deep end of psychotic-tinged stories with a human element coercing through it.
She can do more with her eyes than most can do with a whole script, and it serves West's film very well. Cudi and Snow play their roles just right, with the real-life musician playing a former soldier who still has a cocky penchant for war tales. Snow is aptly cunning and annoying.
Ortega is also gaining a thirst for this genre, starring in the new "Scream" movie and "Studio 666" already this year. If there's blood and guts promised, the young actress is in. There's an enduring innocence to her Lorraine that starts to mix with a rabid curiosity, and she gives that makeup real life in the second half.
Aesthetically, this film seems to be in love with the time era, a place where the pornography business was only a burgeoning idea with no action and bad decisions ran more rampant. The smooth tune-filled soundtrack blends nicely with the intense score, keeping viewers on their toes as they slowly tap their feet to the music. The cinematography is grainy and dirty, fitting the era to a tee. West has nothing to hide; all he wants is every nail on your hands chewed off.
"X" belongs comfortably between "The House of the Devil" and last year's "Malignant" as something familiar and also extra in the genre, even if I wanted to start a "how to survive" class for young, dumb and endangered souls who find themselves in a scary story.