Horror, like porn, is meant to evoke a physical reaction. They, alongside melodrama, form the trio of genres which are described as “body genres” by my favourite media theorist, Jenna Stoeber*. Stoeber argues that the body genres evoke emotional reactions of “fear, sadness, or arousal” that spill out as physical–screams, tears, and, yes, orgasms. These are contrasted with a more “sophisticated” sense of satisfaction or catharsis from narrative closure, complex character arcs, or a complex plot in more, to borrow a term, “reputable” genres.
The emotional response from the body genres can often supersede plot and narrative in films, in which a movie can be scary enough, or sobby enough, or sexy enough that you don’t really care that the characters aren’t developed or the plotting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There just has to be exactly enough character and plot to get you to the finish line and that physical, emotional catharsis. Nobody’s watching porn for the stories, after all. For that reason, the body genres–especially horror and porn but certainly melodrama of the Hallmark variety–are often looked down upon by self-described sophisticated types, unless they can be “elevated” in some way. Recent releases X by Ti West and Fresh from Mimi Cave show that such “elevation” isn’t needed, and sometimes the cathartic, emotional release is itself a reward.
X (Ti West, 2022)
X follows a troupe of enterprising young porn filmmakers out to make their own ‘elevated’ dirty movie–a film called “The Farmer’s Daughters” that might as well be called Debbie Does Dallas–away from the glitz of Hollywood in 1979. Charismatic producer and pack leader Wayne (Martin Henderson) is in charge of wrangling and motivating his tiny cast and crew, composed of popular starlet Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), ambitious up-and-comer Maxine (Mia Goth), scene-stealing male performer Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), director RJ (Owen Campbell) and prudish “churchmouse” Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who handles sound.
The group pull their van into a secluded farm in rural Texas, where they’ve made arrangements to stay with the senile old owner Howard (Stephen Ure) and his listless wife Pearl. Both old folks seem more than a little confused about the bohemian interlopers, but Pearl especially takes a liking to Maxine, seeing her as a younger version of herself when she still had dreams of being a dancer. As the group proceeds to boldly film their movie, titled The Farmer’s Daughters, around the property, it’s clear that prying eyes edge ever closer.
It’s no spoiler to point out that very few of these characters will walk away from this mess, and X gets that out of the way early by showing us quick shots of the grisly aftermath first (stopping short at identifying the mutilated bodies, as if you could), then turning the clock back 24 hours to set it all up. It leaves a flashing neon sign hovering over the whole film, perhaps echoing that famous Texas Chainsaw tagline, “who will survive, and what will be left of them?” It’s just one of the ways that West is playing tribute to that franchise in X, in my opinion more effectively than Texas Chainsaw has itself. A van full of dirty-minded young folks encroaching on a seemingly-traditional family on an isolated farm in Texas is bound to invite such comparisons, though nary a saw is in sight.
For those of us that live and breathe horror, you can almost predict the order in which the kills happen in a typical slasher. But that’s where West starts throwing curveballs, dispatching characters early on that you think might make it into the final frames. And there’s much more in the background in the form of a surprising role from Mia Goth, who steals this movie along with Cudi. There’s also a deeply tender and humanizing musical moment partway through that feels tangential to the plot, but works to bring some breadth to our small cast, especially Bobby-Lynne and Jackson.
But, as we’ve learned, plot can be completely secondary in both horror and porn if the terror and the titillation are intact and sufficiently realized. RJ, for all his ambitions to make something befitting the French New Wave, feels like he’s screaming into the wind when he expresses this. This is likely to be West thumbing his nose at the concept of “elevated horror”, something Ortega’s character explicitly calls out in that other horror movie she starred in this year, Scream (2022). As well he should – who wants heady intellectualizing when they’re watching a skin flick?
Closeups, split-screens, and a bunch of little surprises by way of the outstanding soundtrack do plenty of elevating, though. For a film that’s primarily about filmmaking, it uses a lot of tricks to induce scares, and it works very well. Kills build in anticipation, and the shock is more shocking when the movie delivers exactly what you’re expecting without trying to swerve you.
Horror and porn are combined nearly seamlessly in Ti West’s X. Scenes of both types build and build to a money shot before explosively unleashing human substrates onto the screen. Wielding this kind of power isn’t easy, but in Ti West’s deft hands it works. He knows how to hold a scene for exactly long enough, edging you a little more before bringing the (literal) hammer down. He uses misdirection, by way of perspective switching, in an ostentatious and unsubtle way that leaves you as the viewer silently begging for release.
Fresh (Mimi Cave, 2022)
Bodies, in particular the literal exploitation and consumption of same, are also front-and-centre in Mimi Cave’s cannibal-themed horror comedy Fresh. The explicit focus on women’s bodies here, though, sets it apart. It might not be subtle, but the body genres rarely are.
It’s weird to think that I watched Fresh on a streaming service–Disney+–where my kids watch Gravity Falls and the seemingly endless adventures of Elsa, Anna, and Tinkerbell. It reminds me of the little independent video store we had in the West end of Toronto where I grew up. That store, for some reason, had it’s kids section right next to the horror section–like an aisle over with no clear separation. It might well be the reason I got into horror in the first place, now that I think of it. I can’t think of an exact time that Transformers: The Movie and The Last Starfighter turned into Tales From The Crypt and Creepshow. It was more of a gradual process as I developed the gumption to drift into that other aisle. But once I did, I rarely strayed until it’s ghastly delights ran dry, And then I revisited the best of them over and over.
Fresh opens on Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) trying to navigate the minefield of app-based dating. She’s stepped on a live one when we first find her enduring an exhausting lecture from her scarf-clad date, including a moan about how women don’t dress femininely enough (to the sweater-clad Noa). What is plainly a painfully slow-moving disaster to those of us watching ends with Noa’s rebuffed date storming off with all the leftovers from dinner, cussing her out the whole way. Typical.
But then Noa encounters plastic surgeon Steve (Sebastian Stan) in the produce aisle at the grocery. Instantly charming and disarming** and with those Winter Soldier good looks, impossible jawline, and a self-deprecating sense of humour, it seems like the kind of meet-cute that’s all too rare in the world of app-centric matchmaking. They hit it off immediately and begin to date. As the relationship between Noa and Steve develops, we learn that he’s a vegetarian, but not the militant or preachy type. Soon after, Steve springs the idea for a surprise out-of-town weekend getaway on Noa and she happily agrees, though some key things, like the destination, are left out.
It’s only at this point, around the 30-minute mark, that Fresh gives us it’s title card, signaling that the real movie is just beginning. And it’s where Steve reveals to Noa that she’s imprisoned in the basement of his modern, high-tech house. He also lets slip that he intends to sell her body parts for consumption by wealthy cannibals. It’s not the most subtle metaphor for the theft of body autonomy, which is a conversation we desperately have to have as a society yet again, but it’s explored so well here in Fresh. Cave and screenwriter Lauryn Kahn trick you over and over into disarming laugh-out-loud moments, laughing at things you really shouldn’t be. And there are the moments where you find yourself being charmed by Steve’s wit even though you already know his only interest is sawing off your leg and selling it to the highest bidder. It’s all an effort to keep you off guard as the horror seeps in, the deep dread and goosebumps and the revulsion that comes with looking at a delicious-looking meatball that you have to reconcile is made with one of the characters you’ve come to love earlier in the film.
Both X and Fresh expertly explore body genres–porn with X, and melodrama in Fresh –through horror. The bodies in both are explicitly meant for exploitation and consumption. When we realize this, or see the results of the characters’ misadventures, physical responses like fear or arousal, maybe a deep sadness or feeling of despair are the end result. So who cares if horror, Hallmark, and heavy breathing aren’t reputable? Sometimes the spectacle of it is just what the body needs.
*And earlier, by Richard Dyer, “Male gay porn: Coming to terms” (1985) and Carol J. Clover in “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” (1987)
**Literally, as Noa comes to realize too late in the film.
Sachin Hingoo stars in the upcoming Hallmark movie, “A Dismemberment For Christmas”