“X” is a clever and exuberant throwback to a less innocent time, when movies could be naughty, disreputable and idiosyncratic. Two kinds of movie in particular: the dirty kind and the scary kind. Set in 1979, before the internet made pornography ubiquitous and before anyone was pontificating about “elevated horror,” this sly and nasty picture insists that the flesh and blood of down-and-dirty entertainment is, literally, flesh and blood.
Not that the director, Ti West, is simply replicating the cheap, tawdry thrills of the olden days. West, whose earlier features include “The House of the Devil” and “The Sacrament,” is both a canny craftsman and a genre intellectual. In the midst of the sex and slaughter, he conducts an advanced seminar on visual pleasure and narrative cinema.
And also a brief course in film history, with particular attention to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and shout-outs to “Psycho” and “Debbie Does Dallas.” That X-rated landmark (later adapted into a Broadway musical) provides inspiration for the six Texans who show up at a decrepit farmstead to shoot a hard-core oeuvre called “The Farmer’s Daughters.” The actual farmer, an apparently childless geezer named Howard (Stephen Ure), has rented them a bunkhouse on his property. He and his wife live in the creaky, creepy main house.
The cast and crew consists of three performers — two women and a man, the classic heterosexual porn ratio — a director, a technician and a swaggering entrepreneur who claims the title of executive producer. This guy, Wayne (Martin Henderson), is also romantically attached to one of the stars, Maxine (Mia Goth), who dreams of the Hollywood big time. Her veteran co-stars, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott Mescudi, also known as the rapper Kid Cudi), are also a couple, as are RJ (Owen Campbell), the director, and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who handles the sound and is, at least for a while, the designated prude.
Since “X” is a slasher film, it’s not spoiling anything to note that most of these people will not make it out alive. An ax, a pitchfork and a shotgun are all in easy reach, and for good measure there’s an alligator in the pond. Howard and his wife, Pearl, give off sinister vibes, and West’s knack for zooming, cutting, manipulating point of view and layering sinister sounds creates an unmistakable anticipation of doom.
But the sequence of deaths, the motives for the mayhem and the identity of the survivor may not quite match your expectations. Most notably, the old circuitry connecting horror and female sexuality — canonically diagramed in Carol J. Clover’s 1992 study “Men, Women and Chain Saws” — has been rewired. By the time it’s all over, the film has moved out of period pastiche into interesting new territory, exposing a feminist dimension in the horror tradition that may have been there all along. (Since West is reportedly already at work on a prequel, further exploration may be in store.)
In the meantime, you can sample the familiar, trashy pleasures of sin and skin, with a piquant sprinkling of meta. This is a movie about moviemaking, after all, like “Argo” or “Day for Night” or “Singing in the Rain,” and as such it teases the viewer with knowing winks and easy-access insider references.
Many of these come at poor RJ’s expense. With his stringy hair, wispy beard and wet-noodle physique, he’s a film-nerd caricature. He wants to bring experimental techniques — “the way they do in France” — to “The Farmer’s Daughters,” and worries Wayne with his commitment to the avant-garde. Still, he’s not entirely a satirical scapegoat. His sensitivity about the kind of movie he’s actually making (especially once Lorraine sheds her disapproval) isn’t played for laughs. His toast “to independent cinema” is a punchline, but it could also be West’s motto.
When RJ argues against the importance of plot, he has a point, one West both upholds and challenges. Horror and hard-core both use narrative as a flimsy excuse to show the audience the action it really came to see. And while the sex in “X” is strictly R-rated, the movie isn’t shy about appealing to voyeurism. There’s nothing coy or arty about the bloodletting.
The twists of the story — the shifts in attention from Wayne and Maxine and their colleagues to Howard and Pearl — are hardly arbitrary. West, unlike his pornographers, has things to say as well as bodies to show. Most of all, he has an aesthetic that isn’t all about terror or titillation. “X” is full of dreamy, haunting overhead shots and moments of surprising tenderness.
One of these arrives in the middle, while everyone is still alive and wearing clothes, and Bobby-Lynne, accompanied by Jackson on guitar, breaks into a heartfelt rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” (One thing that definitely sets “X” apart from its ’70s influences is a robust budget for musical clearances.) The song serves no narrative end, or any prurient or profound purpose. It’s an unexpected gift. So is “X.”
Rated R. Not quite what the title promises, but still. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.