X (2022)

MARCH 20, 2021


Believe it or not, the only legitimate complaint I have about X is its title. It's perfect for the movie, yes, but it's annoying to say and downright impossible to Google without adding one of the cast members or that of writer/producer/director/co-editor Ti West. And that's fine for the cast, but I honestly worry that seeing his name might turn people off, as his films are an acquired taste (I myself have only liked two of the five previous ones I've seen) and will perhaps give them the wrong impression of what the movie is. And what it is is a bona fide, straight up slasher movie in the best traditions of both old (characters who like each other! A pre-cell phone existence! Nudity!) and new (it has something to say!).

No, it's not as fast paced as a Friday the 13th movie or something, but I think it perfectly finds the sweet spot between what the average horror fan might think of when they think of slasher movies, and what they might think of as a "Ti West movie." It does take a bit for the killing to start, but what's essential to note is that the movie never drags - I can't think of one thing I'd cut prior to the first kill scene. Everything that's there is character building, both for our hero group (the cast and very small crew of what they hope will be the next Debbie Does Dallas) and the villains, an elderly couple whose farm they are using for their masterpiece. So yes it might be slower paced than the usual hack n slash flick, but it's not slow like West's earlier work; I never felt I was watching something just to pad the runtime out, and that makes all the difference in the world.

(From here on out I'm going to assume you've seen the trailer, if not and you don't want anything else spoiled, turn back now!)

It's also quite suspenseful, because while we know the old lady is a killer, it's unclear for a while what the husband's deal is. We know he loves her and worries about her, but when it's clear something's "off" we aren't sure if he's trying to make sure she doesn't start killing people (i.e. something she has done before), or if he's going to be helping her do it. Hell for all we know he might not even be aware of her murderous tendencies. So when she goes missing and one of the group volunteers to help him look for her outside in the far end of their dark, swampy property, it's a great little mystery - are they BOTH in danger, or just our helpful porn star? And is the old man's reluctance for the guy to join him just his own way of trying to protect the kid, knowing he'll be a goner if his wife finds him first? It's a very smart call on West's part, and buys the movie's thin premise (it IS a slasher, so a complicated plot would be counterproductive) a lot of mileage most of its single killer brethren can't muster for themselves.

It also has the rare "two Final Girl" setup, in that it's clear Mia Goth is our main hero but there's also Jenna Ortega in the mix. With her newfound horror cred thanks to Scream 5 (which, spoiler, she survives) and her mousy demeanor making her feel like the would-be heroine of any other version of this story, it's legitimately suspenseful whenever she's in danger, because her survival odds are 50/50 as opposed to just about everyone else's (that the movie starts with a flash forward with the cops finding the bodies doesn't help, though it thankfully doesn't show who survived, if anyone). The last one I can really recall is the F13 remake, where Jared Padalecki's character was trying to save his sister but also had a love interest, making it hard to gauge which one would be the actual survivor.

Also working in its favor is a positive attitude toward sex, something you certainly don't find in a slasher all that much. I think a lot of the puritan "Sex = death" thing about old slashers was overwrought/unintentional and that the fact that the people who had sex ended up dead is because nearly EVERY CHARACTER ended up dead and sex was thrown in the mix to add to the inherent exploitation elements of the film. I mean if you look at the Friday the 13th movies, there's almost always a character who is defined by their inability to get laid (Shelly, Eddie, Vince, etc) and they ended up just as dead as everyone else, so it's a rather silly "rule" if you ask me. But here we get a monologue about how our bodies ultimately betray us and how we should use them to feel good while we still can (in fact, it's an important part of the plot though explaining why would be spoiler-y), and also that we can't choose who we are attracted to, only with whether or not we do something about that attraction. It's weirdly refreshing to hear in this kind of movie, where even with the exceptions to the virgin rule and my own eye-rolling at the idea that it's an intentional message, sex does seem to be frowned upon in one way or another. Here it's celebrated as it should be!

Oh and you won't know it at the time, but the movie has one of the greatest bits of foreshadowing in horror history. When you watch it again you'll know what I mean, it happens pretty early (if you don't plan to watch again, I hope you just have a good memory and realize that there is a literal sign pointing to someone's specific fate).

West and Goth have already shot a prequel film, one I'm kind of curious about but also can't help but feel it will diminish some of the impact of this one (again, can't explain without spoiling) given the nature of its villain. Given the low box office turnout for this one (booo!) I assume it'll just end up VOD instead of theatrical (maybe limited? I doubt I'll be able to see it at the AMC with Nicole Kidman telling me how much we all need to be there, at any rate), but either way I'll definitely check it out, if mostly out of curiosity instead of excitement. But the real takeaway here is that West's critics need not worry about his usual style holding this one back; he "understood the assignment" as the kids say. And now I just have to pity whoever casts Ortega in *their* slasher movie, as they now have to live up to two modern standouts in the genre.

What say you?



FTP: Honeydew (2020)

MARCH 7, 2022


A while back, I was reading an article about Honeydew in Fangoria and came across a passage that left me confused and then delighted. The film's director was talking about his cast, and when it came to one performer in particular he opted not to reveal their name, saying that their persona would cloud people's perception of the film. "That's weird," I thought, "Unless it was like, Lena Dunham, who cares?" So I had to laugh heartily and give myself a little pat on the back when I looked it up and found that it was indeed Ms. Dunham that played a bit role in the film. She's credited, so it's not a spoiler or anything, but he's kind of right - I tend to steer clear of anything with her name.

But I was still curious since the film was about a couple whose car breaks down in New England somewhere (it's never specified which state; someone said "The woods between Pennsylvania and Maine", and I like that!) and, naturally, run afoul of evildoers - i.e. the sort of thing I tend to like just fine. Since Dunham wasn't the female part of the couple I figured whatever role she played wouldn't be enough to derail my enjoyment (or blame her specifically if I didn't like it), so its time in the pile wasn't as long as some others (there are movies that have been in there since said "pile" began its official life as an actual pile before it became a box, and then a bigger box - I really need to get through these faster*).

Anyway, the movie (and Dunham, to be fair!) are fine. If it was 85 minutes I'd probably be considering it a minor gem of the sub-genre, but unfortunately it's more than 20 minutes longer than that, and that's the problem. Long movies are fine if they need to be (I've said before: Titanic could have been longer! They fall in love in between scenes it seems) but this is, you know, a movie about a couple whose car breaks down and they run across some weirdos. Even if you've never seen a horror movie before I think your gut would tell you that the heroes are in deep trouble from the second they knock on the door of the isolated farm, but writer/director Deveraux Milburn stretches the premise into breaking point territory. He doesn't cripple the movie, but he sure gives it a noticeable limp.

Even the nature of what the creepy old lady is up to isn't a surprise. I left it out of the genre tags for those (imaginary?) people who have indeed never seen a horror movie before and are making this their first, but when (hints at the spoiler ahead, skip this paragraph if you don't want a big clue!) the primary discussion of the couple's conversation with the old lady is almost entirely about the issues with the local cows not being OK to eat and also their own vegan diets, you should be able to know exactly just what is in store for them. So you're just kind of waiting for that to happen.

And even when it's finally spelled out, the movie keeps going. Even its epilogue is too long, as if we were watching an assembly cut instead of an edited version. On the commentary they said the movie was shot over 10-11 days, so I can perhaps assume that some of the film's length is due to not having the right coverage to hide edits (indeed, the director even notes a deleted scene that they had to remove entirely due to it not cutting right), but it doesn't change the fact that they're asking a lot of our patience for reveals that won't be too surprising to any astute horror fan (likely the primary audience, given its distribution from my pals at Bloody Disgusting).

But Milburn does get a lot right. The couple is well cast and believable as a strained couple - they're not at each others' throats the whole time like in Children of the Corn or something, but just kind of bored of each other and wanting different things out of life; you get the idea they're both waiting for the other one to break it off so that they can get off easy and are now in a stalemate. And the nature of their obligatory "weird kid", Gunni, is actually fairly inspired - he ended up being the film's most interesting character. Also, Barbara Kingsley is terrific as the old lady, finding that right balance where she's clearly unhinged but never to the point where you question why they aren't running for the hills - it's almost more like they feel bad for her as she's starting to lose her marbles.

The disc is surprisingly packed, with the commentary, a decent behind the scenes piece, a festival Q&A, some of Milburn's short films, and two things I haven't seen for a while: an isolated score (which is quite good) and an "evolution of a trailer" collection that shows how they used more or less the same footage/dialogue in different ways to try to find the most appealing approach. I wish it had some kind of commentary attached to explain the thinking behind this or that, but it's interesting on its own. The commentary mentions the possibility of deleted scenes, but alas if they're there they must be an Easter egg that I had no drive to find.

So it's a terrible "pile" movie as I still don't know if I want to keep it or not! It's pretty good, the kind of thing I like more in hindsight than in watching when I'm constantly thinking things like "How is there stil another half hour?", but I also know that if x number of years from now I decide I want to watch again, I'll be like "Nah it's too long let me find something shorter." But for those who are more patient than me (or simply less attuned to knowing where a movie is headed based on context clues) I'm sure you'll agree it's a pretty good entry in this sub-genre, buoyed by strong performances and some directorial flourishes (split screen effects!) that give it a little more personality than its two line synopsis would suggest.

What say you?

*Thanks to Birth.Movies.Death dying, it thankfully hasn't expanded as much as it might have, as I no longer have any other regular/high profile outlets to write for. So a lot of those review copies that kept the box growing have stopped coming, and I'm actually fine with that. Maybe someday I CAN actually get through the whole thing!



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