Elderly people get a bad rep in horror flicks. Wrinkles are enhanced through color contrast, bodies become intensely stooped, crooked malformations and wisened figures grow impossibly intimidating and grotesque as they stand afar in the frame and ominously stare or wave.
In A24’s newest slasher horror “X,” Director Ti West gives the trope of a snarly, cannibalistic, white-shift-wearing old lady — which has been featured in films such as “Paranormal Activity,” “Legion,” “It Follows” and “The Visit” — a new spin. It will do well to not spoil the film, but what can be said is that the almost primal urge for sex is added to the amalgam of fear-inspiring elements.
The film is set in rural Texas in 1979: Preachers rail against sexual deviance with marked vehemence, cows wander onto the roads to be smashed by vehicles into gory smithereens and the county sheriff contemplates whether retirement benefits are worth his while in the face of confounding, grisly crimes.
A ragtag entourage led by adult film producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) and comprised of his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), stripper Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Bobby-Lynne’s boyfriend Jackson (Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi) and production crew members RJ (Owen Campbell) and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) have rented a derelict bunkhouse for a day to shoot “The Farmer’s Daughters,” the eponymous “X”-rated film.
In the equally dilapidated main house one field away lives the aged, childless couple that owns the filming location — an old man named Howard (Stephen Ure) and his sinister-looking wife Pearl.
Despite the foreboding atmosphere and ominous-looking homeowners, the cast and crew begin filming, with RJ insisting on making the porno “avant-garde,” a meta-comment on West’s career in independent filmmaking.
Bathed in the lazy afternoon sun, the filming commences, and “X” gives an unabashed display of sex and skin as well as sleazy entertainment with a dash of self-referential wit. Voyeurs appear both on and off screen, as filmgoers witness the unbridled sex, nudity and explicit pleasure more often reserved for private spaces.
This is also where the film shines in its deliciously dark originality. Trashy outtakes of the adult film are spliced with a suspenseful interplay between predator and prey. Overhead shots of the adult film cast and crew show them at their utmost vulnerability, innocent from the knowledge of their impending doom despite the seemingly corrupt, amoral premise.
But West doesn’t deny the promised wicked fun. Soon, things start to go horribly awry. Allusions to the horror film’s predecessors — “Psycho,” “Jaws,” “The Shining,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — are stylishly dished out. And people begin to die, in the most fantastically hilarious ways: shotgun backblast, car driving over someone’s head and, of course, a dip in crocodile-infested waters. The sinister villainess behind all of this? You guessed it, a senior renegade tired of condescending young’uns.
In all seriousness, the film’s epic hilarity is a bold confrontation of the visceral fear of aging, of physical incompetence not just in one’s performance in bed but also in the daily activities in life, such as doing the dishes after a home-cooked meal (to mark this point, the camera pans slowly across Howard and Pearl’s decrepit kitchen cluttered with unwashed utensils). It’s also a fear inspired by how younger generations treat the elderly differently — sometimes with deference, but more often with contemptuous disdain.
The female body bears the brunt of the process of aging in the film — the viewers see both the 20-year-old glitzy beauty and the neglected shriveled 70-year-old. The film operates almost interrogatively, challenging the audience with visual inquiries on this apparent dichotomy. A topless Mia Goth gives viewers a sensual cinematic experience, as they find themselves mesmerized by the flawless skin, alluring gaze and parted lips. But when the elderly Pearl clad in a parted shift inches invitingly toward her long-time partner, Howard, the audience cringes involuntarily.
In the modern era of cinema, moviegoers have generally internalized the male gaze on the female object, especially in a horror with a porno setting. So, when the desirable female body is turned on its head, sex is no longer an enjoyable watch — it’s revolting. In the screening attended by this reviewer, some audience members walked out at a quite literal climactic moment between Howard and Pearl.
Sometimes it feels that the female body is designated for deterioration, a tragic arc from glamorous to repulsive. West is well aware of this, and the startling shift between sexually active youths and the elderly in the film is intended to give audiences whiplash. But it’s also purposed to interrogate the viewer through one’s reactions: What does growing old mean? What can desire become when you’re old? How can we make sense of our hyper-anxieties against aging? And finally, do we still deserve to feel loved and desired in our twilight years?
“X” doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, after all, a slasher set in hardcore pornography. Yet the questions presented by West are worth mulling over.