An ‘X’ -rated time capsule

8/10 X is a period piece from behind the camera, a celebration of long-expired tastes to tell a story contrasting the generation that popularized them, the passive changes time brings and the active reactions to those changes.

Texas, 1979, the year John Carpenter’s Halloween changed cinema forever- A sexy young crew, led by producer Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson) and his girlfriend Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), travels across the Texas coast to an old Confederate barracks where they shoot a porno unbeknownst to the property’s elderly owner, Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife, Pearl (also Goth in heavy prosthetics). Production wraps in a day, but at night, Pearl and Howard begin to murder the crew. Rather than the MPAA’s “X” rating, X seems to be titled after the “X-factor” that Minx and Pearl are both described as having.

X has a way of making everything that’s happening make sense. The film’s core thoughts are written into its frequent discussions of what was happening in 1979. It was the dawn of home video, which Gilroy asserts will finally make pornography a profitable, star-making enterprise. Cameraman RJ Nichols’ (Owen Campbell) access to cheap, high-quality equipment is another reason to be optimistic about the production.

It’s not a coincidence that slashers took over the big screen just as pornography vacated it. Slashers are and always have been porn, these cheaply made, partially underground movies crewed exclusively by the fringes of the film industry, each advertised as being more lurid than the last. Sex and violence in American media are often censored by the same prudes, and slashers meant to give it to viewers from both directions. The various appeals of mass media have often been put in terms of porn in the years since – the soft-core sexual appeal of primetime television is obvious, but also less sexual reality television like baking shows that scratch the same itch of revealing private habits. CGI-driven blockbusters that offer purely visual spectacles in a way that can be similarly divorced from their plots have been derided as “special effects porn” as far back as the ‘90s.

In 2022, theaters are overflowing with sterile cartoon action, and X isn’t in a desperate competition to be the most lurid thing on screens, but it sure acts like it is. X has gory goods that would make Michael Myers blush, close-ups of crushed skulls and scattered organs, explosions of viscera, dismemberment, it’s got everything. There’s special attention to getting action and reaction in the same shot as often as possible, so you get the squishing impact onscreen.

X has mostly been contextualized with an earlier slasher, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because it basically has the same plot – the protagonists knock on the wrong Texas backwater door, and things go south.

What was happening in 1979, what was really happening, the cultural force that directed how X’s new technology would be applied, was the children of the ‘60s were growing up. The little darlings of the men who built the interstates, the first generation to grow up with television news in the home watching coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and seeing Nixon betray them, were having sex and doing drugs, and the news reports from when they raped and murdered each other were also beaming right into the living room. That’s why Golden Age slashers were set in sleepy suburbs and summer camps, places where violence was unimaginable and where the first generation of teens whose parents thought they’d never grow up were doing unimaginable things.

X is the story of this transition and clash between artistry and pornography played out in some forgotten corner of southeast Texas. The porn shoot becomes a slasher shoot in almost as literal a sense as possible – as the porn stars share a pitcher of lemonade as foreplay for fucking, Minx and Pearl share a pitcher of lemonade as foreplay for stabbing. Pearl and Howard have explicitly replaced their sex life with murder, and Pearl tries to convince most of her victims to have sex with her before killing them. The process of watching other people have sex changes the characters, and in many ways drives the plot of X.

Much of this clash surrounds Nichols, who stands for writer/director/editor/producer Ti West as he repeatedly asserts the artistic and creative merit of this project despite the plain fact that he couldn’t get a better job. He constantly runs headlong into the reality of what he’s doing as the cast takes over the movie, climaxing quickly in the moment when Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi) tells him to shut up and point the camera. Nichols’ best compositional idea is given to him by another performer.  

“Here we are, our own studio backlot!” “Thank goodness, I’m horny.”

X’s editing, which West shares credit with David Kashevaroff for, is the most pointed, often flashing three times between two scenes in transition to make absolutely certain the audience gets that the scenes tie together – Nichols brags early that he plans to disguise the movie’s cheapness with editing tricks.

X is about looking back to a moment in film history and hinges on a generational gap, so it fits that the movie’s real monster seems to be age itself, what we lose as time passes. Howard hasn’t just lost his sexuality, he’s lost his identity as a sexual being. He sees young people displaying and enjoying their bodies and can no longer sympathize, no longer remember a version of himself who would participate or even understand. From his and Pearl’s perspective, the story is one of reclaiming sexuality from the horror it had become long ago, and their moments together are genuine and sweet.

That’s what X is all about, really – a movie that, quite sweetly, insists it was released in 1979, but captures that with the hindsight of 2022. As a historian, it’s a marvel to experience this feeling of comprehension distilled into film form.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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