Pornography is, undoubtedly, the most taboo type of film, encouraged by the perpetuate societal stigma against porn films and sex workers. One could argue that the second most taboo type of film is horror. This is a genre that’s inspired walkouts, protests, bans and arguments in the last century, nevertheless great horror films are still being made and receiving mainstream releases. A marriage of the two types of film — the most taboo yet? — is X, a new slasher written, directed and edited by Ti West (The House of the Devil). Unfortunately, the rule of thumb is that if you’re in a horror movie, don’t have sex. If you do, the odds are that you and mostly everyone else will die a gruesome death. In X, such things are much harder to avoid — our leads are adult film stars, and their desire to get discovered through pornography directly conflicts with the first rule of horror. It’s a brilliant dichotomy that is only a small, yet still very important piece of X’s true nature.
There’s one name on the cast list that’s easily recognizable to anyone who’s been following the genre, and that’s Jenna Ortega, who’s having quite a horror-centric year so far. In January, she starred in Scream. In February, she made an extended cameo in Studio 666. Now, she has made her third consecutive monthly horror appearance, a trend she surely can’t keep up. It’s an excellent genre start for Ortega, and I have no doubt that she will become one of horror’s most in-demand actors. For now, although her role in X may be her biggest in any of the aforementioned horror films, she’s not exactly the lead. That falls to standout Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness), who plays aspiring adult film star Maxine Minx in 1979 Texas. With her boyfriend Wayne (The Ring’s Martin Henderson), she sets off to make a porn film that will get her on the map. Maxine and Wayne take their crew to a rural farmhouse owned by an elderly couple who decidedly do not approve of the film that’s being made.
When I first saw the film, I was astonished by Mia Goth. She brings a brutal earnestness to Maxine that we don’t see in many horror leads, and for that I was fully impressed by her performance. After I saw the film, I discovered she plays another role — that of Pearl, the elderly woman who takes a special, albeit very creepy liking to Maxine. That was enough to elevate Goth’s performance to some of the best I’ve seen in recent years; the fact that I didn’t even know it was her playing Pearl is a true signal of excellence. You don’t see dual roles like this that often, and when the characters played are polar opposites it’s even more engaging. There’s already a prequel on the way exploring a younger Pearl, with Goth returning, and I have no doubt her acting career will skyrocket soon enough.
X is so simplistic in its premise that it’s hard to believe how effective it truly is. Even in scenes of apparent rest, I was on edge, and like most things in the film that paid off — the horror can come from anywhere, and anyone can be a victim of alleged circumstance. It’s not exactly surprising, but it is scary, and in modeling itself after classic slashers it plays into the tropes that we know and love — only to sidestep them at the last minute.
The supporting cast is nothing short of fantastic. Musician Scott Mescudi aka “Kid Cudi”’ (Don’t Look Up) and Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) play pornographic actors Jackson and Bobby-Lynne; Owen Campbell (As You Are) is RJ, the porn film’s cinematographer, while Ortega plays his girlfriend (and lightning technician) Lorraine. Everyone brings something unique to the film, while also deploying increasingly obvious horror tropes that could easily foretell their eventual deaths.
I was absolutely delighted by X. It’s an intense and extremely violent slasher, but it embodies everything I love about horror by pushing the limits of what could (and should) be considered mainstream entertainment.
X is in theaters now from A24.