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Julia X (2011)

Plot: dating in the modern world isn’t what it used to be.

In his book If Chins Could Kill: Confessions Of A B-Movie Actor genre stalwart Bruce Campbell talks a great deal about what he refers to as Hollywood’s working stiffs, or blue-collar actors who just try to remain employed, those who play bits parts and supporting roles on the big and the small screens; and the chosen, lucky few who need a paycheck in between big Hollywood blockbusters. Julia X features examples of all three, and is a grueling example of what happens to television actors, and second-tier Hollywood actors not marketable enough to carry their own features. Kevin Sorbo is no stranger to the low budget circuit ever since the end of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) and even someone as famous as Ving Rhames needs to put food on the table in between Mission: Impossible sequels. Julia X is a cautionary tale of what actors have to suffer through to remain employed in between prestigious A-list projects.

The creative force behind Julia X is one Philip J. Pettiette. Pettiette started out as a dailies courier on House Of Games (1987) and from there worked his way up to production assistant. In that capacity he was involved with the Babe Ruth biopic The Babe (1992), and Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). He then acted as production manager on the Shannon Tweed erotic thriller Night Fire (1994) and as co-executive producer on John Boorman’s The General (1998). Pettiette’s first foray into horror came with the all but forgotten Jennifer’s Shadow (2004) (which he also wrote) and that pretty much laid the necessary groundwork for his own directorial feature. Julia X was written by Matt Cunningham - a special effects artisan and sometime television documentary producer who directed a few cheap splatter movies that nobody remembers – who worked on Starship Troopers (1997) and most recently The Predator (2018). Overseeing the special effects is actor/stuntman Scott Roland with Steve Krieger and cinematographer Andrew Newton. All of which is well and good, except… what? Who has an actor/stuntman and cinematographer doing special effects, and a special effects technician writing? Also involved is Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka, he of Silent Hill (1999-2014) and Lollipop Chainsaw (2012) fame and sometime creative for CD Project RED.

Julia (Valerie Azlynn) is on a date with a man (Kevin Sorbo) she met on the Internet. Everything seems to be going well, and she even starts having flights of fancy about the possibilities. For no apparent reason Julia excuses herself, places a call, and makes haste to leave the bar. His advances spurned the man follows Julia out into an underground parking garage, sedates her, and takes her to his hideout. En route to his hideout the man disposes of a prior victim (Kasi Scarbrough Corley) before continuing the drive. Once at the hideout he ties Julia up, burns an X on her thigh, and then kills time by listening to ‘Close to You’ from The Carpenters on his mp3 player. In an unguarded moment Julia manages to escape, and via an extended detour through out some nearby woodlands, enters a dwelling. In the woods the man finds a decaying residence. There he’s knocked unconscious by Julia, and moments later another vehicle pulls up.

The other vehicle disgorges a blonde woman by the name of Jessica (Alicia Leigh Willis, as Alicia Willis), and together with Julia she throws the comatose man in the trunk before speeding off. The two take their prisoner to their remote dwelling in the middle of nowhere where Julia inflicts an extended battery of torture upon her victim. Julia and Jessica were the product of a broken home and victims of domestic abuse, and now that they’ve come of age they prey upon and kill men that engage in the same predatory behavior as their father. However, all is not well with the girls and interpersonal tensions are mounting. Jessica just about had it with the inter-sibling dynamic as it currently exists. Julia’s dominant, high-maintenance personality is getting on her nerves, and Jessica’s tired of constantly being infantilized and belittled. All Jessica wants is some freedom, and space to be her own woman. Things come to a violent head when Jessica seduces and abducts unwitting mechanic Sam (Joel David Moore, as Joel Moore). In the ensuing fracas victims fall on both sides with Jessica coming out on top in the sibling conflict. Jessica takes up Julia’s mantle, and almost immediately takes to seducing, and killing, a man (Ving Rhames) at a local diner. Julia X now has become Jessica Y, it seems.

A cursory glance across the credits reveal no big name-stars. Ving Rhames is the only real star, and he was merely doing a cameo. That leaves television regulars Joel David Moore, and Kevin Sorbo to carry the brunt of the feature. In 2012 Ving Rhames was a long way from Mission: Impossible (1996), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jacob's Ladder (1990), and Casualties Of War (1989). But let's not forgot that this was a particular dark year for him as he could be seen in Piranha 3DD (2012), Soldiers of Fortune (2012), and 7 Below (2012). In retrospect it makes his turn in Con Air (1997) look good relative to what other tripe he has starred in the years since. Valerie Azlynn and Alicia Leigh Willis are veterans of American television and both amassed a respectable amount of smaller roles in big budget Hollywood productions. Joel David Moore is another television regular and has starred in the ‘Youth Of the Nation’ from P.O.D. and ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ from Katy Perry music videos. More recently he was in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and is scheduled to return in the planned four sequels. For all the praise collectively heaped upon Cameron he used to work faster on smaller budgets.

For the least bit perceptive the big “twist” (if it can be called that) is so telegraphed and obvious, especially in light of the poster art, that a person must be blind to not see it coming from a mile away. And that exactly is where Julia X falters most damningly. Once the obvious twist is revealed the entire thing only gets by on what damage it’s willing to inflict on its main characters. As it turns out, that’s quite a bit – and it’s just about the last place where you expect god-fearing crusader Kevin Sorbo to turn up. It might not possess the elegance of Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) the way Julia X twists from a romantic drama into a house-full-of-crazies flick, but those curious what a horror take on Bonnie’s Kids (1972) would look like could do worse. Julia X has its heart in the right place and liberally borrows scenes and plot elements from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Maniac (1980), Deranged (1974), Day Of the Woman (1978), Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986), and The Last House On the Left (1972). At best Julia X looks and sounds semi-professional with enthusiasm to spare and at worst it looks somewhere between post-2001 Alex Chandon and post-2012 Rene Perez. Which means there’s blood by the buckets, and has all the hallmarks of a captivity-and-torment romp. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

As of this writing, in 2021, Julia X remains Philip J. Pettiette’s lone solo effort. In the decade since Pettiette has done nothing else, and it’s safe to assume to won’t be returning to directing anytime soon. Has economic anxiety suffocated a potential new talent? Maybe, but not necessarily. While not exactly overflowing with much in the way of individual style or visual flair the least that can be said about Julia X is that it is solid from a technical standpoint. Only a few isolated shots here and there betray that this was a DIY project and the writing is a lot better than it has any reason to be. As much as this is a throwback to the grindhouse terror films of the 1970s there seems to be a concerted effort from all involved to not be exploitative with its two leading ladies. Perhaps it would be a bit much to label this feminist horror. To call the “twist” something new would be intellectually dishonest as female-centric revenge horror is an old staple of the genre. Day Of the Woman (1978), and Ms .45 (1981) are just two of the more enduring examples. Rape Me (2000) was a decade-plus old by that point. Nevertheless it’s good seeing the ladies dishing out the punishment. When it comes right down to it Julia X is a beacon of light in the cesspit that is contemporary horror. A good way to kill 90 minutes.