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‘X’ and ‘Master’: A Texas Porn Star Massacre and the Evils of White Magic

Jump scares, sick kills, and subtext becoming text in two new distinctive horror flicks.

Mia Goth in 'X'; Zoe Renee in 'Master'
Courtesy of A24; Linda Kallerus © AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC

“Elevated horror” is the dumbest genre neologism since “intelligent dance music,” a reminder that no one’s more susceptible to a fancy marketing gimmick than a snob. But like so many undead creatures, the term yet walks among us, unkillable, haunting every positive review of a horror movie with the cursed question,“Do you mean it transcends the genre?”

So don’t be fooled by the good reviews: Ti West’s X exists primarily to creatively end the lives of sexy young people, even if it lets them gab and screw and sing an entire Fleetwood Mac song before the knives come out. And if, say, A.O. Scott’s enthusiasm lures someone’s squeamish parents into an uncomfortable evening of blood-splattered walls and Brittany Snow’s boobs—well, the many restless teens who’ve impatiently waited in vain for the murders to start in an artily suspenseful A24 joint are snickering happily somewhere.

It’s 1979, and the sexual revolution, entering its last days, is vying for America’s soul with the evangelical revival that blares away through B&W TVs and AM radios. The recession’s eroding the economy out in the sticks, and it’s there—though they’ve had a half-decade to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—that a vanload of Houston free spirits is headed to film The Farmer’s Daughters. Here, under the watchful eyes of two ancient, wraithlike homeowners, the frisky crew has to keep its artistic venture on the DL.

The ringleader is would-be entreporneur Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson), certain he’ll make a killing in the burgeoning home video market thanks to his newcomer, Maxine Minx. With her striped boob tube, short shorts, and bright-blue eyeshadow, Maxine (Mia Goth) is more than ready to bang her way to stardom. In her first appearance, she snorts a line, stares at herself in the mirror, and declares, with an absolutely American lack of hesitation or doubt, “You’re a goddamn superstar.”

The porno’s cast is rounded out by Snow, pitch perfect (hahaha) as the shameless peroxide smut vet who plays one of the titular (heheheh) daughters, and Kid Cudi, who, judging from one particular silhouette, is well-cast as studly Jackson Hole. Young director RJ (Owen Campbell) thinks he’ll smuggle some avant-garde touches into the work, while his gf (Jenna Ortega) is initially apprehensive about the project. (After her turn in HBO’s The Fallout, I look for forward to seeing Ortega, the standout newb in the Scream reboot, graduate to roles from which she emerges unbutchered.)

We know there will be gore because the film is prefaced with the local sheriff’s discovery of the carnage and also because we’re not idiots. And West knows his Tobe Hooper even if his hacked-up characters don’t. A student of technique—his opening shot is framed by a doorway to suggest the aspect ratio of a 8mm film—he pays his respects with a keen self-awareness that doesn’t bog down in meta-irony. Genre pics give a filmmaker license to goof around with style and form, and that he does.

Of course, such exercises also allow for some commentary on the genre. In a revisionist twist, the dudes are dumber, and often nuder, than the ladies. X dares you feel sympathy for its devils, indulges and mocks and toys with your repulsion for the aged, and, in the end, suggests that porn is a better path toward salvation than Jesus. But if you think this is scary, wait till you get to the ’80s.


“It’s not ghosts. It’s not supernatural,” a Black professor explains to a harassed Black student in Master. “It’s America. And it’s everywhere.”

The persistence (if not permanence) of this nation’s racist legacy is a rich motherlode for horror, from which writer/director Mariama Diallo frustratingly pans just a few nuggets for her new campus psychological thriller. The white supremacy so many educational institutions were built on, the inherent creepiness of their old buildings—these offer promising Gothic grounds that a movie brimming with more ideas than style, and more atmosphere than pacing, manages to explore.

The always solid Regina Hall is Gail Bishop, a professor who has just become the first Black “House Master” at Ancaster, a prestigious liberal arts college that, like most such, could use the sort of 21st century image makeover that placing people of color in positions of authority can provide. And her colleagues are very proud of themselves for being in the same room with her and oh-so-cleverly comparing her to Obama.

The trouble begins when one of the school’s few Black students, Jasmine (Zoe Renee) winds up in the dorm room that—wouldn’t ya just know it—is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered 17th century witch. Events begin to suggest that legend is true. The line between nightmare and reality is blurred. And what’s up with those spooky townspeople who dress in colonial New England garb?

Wide-eyed and slightly awkward, Renee’s Jasmine is a classic horror heroine, moving with the cautious curiosity of a first-year student just wanting the college experience she’s seen in all the brochures. Instead, she runs afoul of an ostentatiously braided Black lit professor named Liv (she insists on students using her first name) who says things like “Hawthorne went HAM” and also happens to be Gail’s closest pal. When Jasmine submits an official challenge to an F paper, the controversy might just be enough to derail Liv’s tenure review.

And then there are Jasmine’s “friends,” a knot of privileged preps who toss her a rag to clean up their spills and won’t pony up cash for the pizza she orders. And Jasmine’s (white) roommate, who declares war after she catches her jerkass (white) boyfriend kissing Jasmine at a party. This kid can’t catch a break.

The microaggressions, which are plenty blunt to begin with (a suspicious librarian, a kegger where white doofuses rapping along to Sheck Wes seem ominous even before they start n-bombing), turn macro quick enough. Diallo keeps you guessing whether Jasmine is beset by plain old racism, by diabolical witchery, or a confluence of the two evils.

But while Gail’s story leads to plenty of insights about tokenism masquerading as diversity, how performing Blackness in a particular manner curries white favor, and the intractability of institutions built to preserve privileges, those ideas don’t always connect to the underlying thriller. The film bounds and stalls, so a pivotal death scene doesn’t land as it should, and winds up feeling oddly incidental to what follows. Jasmine’s story may be the stuff of horror, Diallo suggests, but it’s also a distraction from America’s everyday terrors.

X and Master are now playing in area theaters. See here for complete film listings.