Ti West’s deviously inventive porno-horror balances sick kills with a more mournful strain of slasher.
As the discourse rages over how tame the mainstream movie scene can be—with its sexless heroes and bloodless violence—it can be tempting to elevate any film that hearkens back to “the good old days” of sex and slashers just for the sake of its own supposed transgressiveness. But luckily, Ti West‘s X largely earns that title, a playful and idiosyncratic ode to both ends of the ’70s sleaze cinema spectrum (hardcore porn and Wes Craven-esque slashers) alike. Not only that, it’s blissfully literate towards its influences, with a nod to larger points about the aesthetics and politics of desire, the fetishization of youth, and so much more.
West, who cut his teeth on other throwback horror films like The House of the Devil and the sorely underrated Innkeepers, is one of our most confident genre craftsmen, and he takes to the twinned aesthetics of Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Debbie Does Dallas with equal aplomb. The story revolves around a scrappy crew of amateur porn filmmakers in 1979 hoping to shoot a skeezy skin flick (called “The Farmer’s Daughter”) in a remote Texas bunkhouse, guerilla-style, one that they hope will make them stars. There’s plenty of ambition in the group, too; producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) has stars in his eyes, and thinks this will kickstart his slinky porn-star-hopeful girlfriend Maxine’s (Mia Goth) into the skeeze stratosphere.
Same goes for writer/director RJ (Owen Campbell), a lanky arthouse snob who wants to use French New Wave techniques to make it feel more “cinematic,” his more prudish girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) working sound. Sultry Southern belle Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and macho Vietnam vet Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi) are the more experienced meat in the room.
But when the crew arrives at their destination, they learn that Wayne has rented out the bunkhouse of a senile, paranoid farmer (Stephen Ure) who doesn’t seem to know what they’re going to use it for, and Wayne’s not too keen on looping them in. Even weirder still is the presence of the farmer’s wife, Pearl, who stares at them and shows an uncanny fascination with the crew—especially Maxine, for whom she may feel an erstwhile connection.
Much like RJ himself, West feels like he’s taking both genres he’s working in for a postmodern, experimental spin, playing gleefully with the cinematic tools of the trade. From its opening shot, he boxes us into the 4:3 ratio we associate with older movies (especially of the adult variety), only to learn we’re looking in from an open barn door as he pushes in, our field of view expanding to widescreen. Early on, Maxine takes a lurid skinny-dip in the lake, only for West to give us a bird’s eye view of an alligator swimming dutifully towards her to try to take a bite. Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe’s score creaks and groans with rhythmic panting and vocalizations, as if the Friday the 13th score were trying to stifle an orgasm.
But much like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the other ’70s slashes of which this takes inspiration, X takes its sweet-ass time to get to the kills, taking an almost From Dusk Till Dawn-esque approach to genre (the kind of switcheroo that would work if, you know, you avoided any and all marketing materials). Up till the fifty-minute point, we’re largely concerned with the characters just trying to get their movie made, and the most striking dilemma comes when Lorraine digs into why and how her cast can do what they do, and whether she could do the same. Still, it’s not long after that that their supposed transgressions are punished in the way many horror films do it: Stamping out prurience at the end of a shotgun, or axe, or pitchfork, or gator’s mouth.
Or are they? The cool thing about X is its more modern, refreshing approach to its sexual politics, which puts a neat spin on the whole thing. Yes, our protagonists are being punished for their hedonistic, sinful ways, but not for the reasons you’d expect. There’s more of a strain of resentment and longing in our killers’ motivations, the sense that age has taken away their ability to do what these younger bucks do so freely, and that makes them angry. One mid-film montage, set cheekily to “Landslide,” makes this point to darkly comic effect: this group of youngsters, deep in their prime and with a lot of fucking left to do, and poor Pearl and her farmer husband, robbed of that potential by time. Time makes you bolder, even children get older. I’m getting older too.
It doesn’t all track, especially in the final minutes when West’s script attempts to tie together a strain of moral-panic Evangelical conservatism that doesn’t quite mesh with what X has been exploring up to this point. And there are some curious contradictions in Maxine’s character that the film can’t successfully reconcile. But still, X has it where it counts — down and dirty kills (stabbings that turn the white glare of headlights blood red!) that are as gruesome as they are unexpected. Unlike a lot of A24 horror films, which are often saddled with the portentous label of “elevated horror,” X is more interested in a bloody good time than bogging you down in existential angst. And we need that from time to time.
X is currently macking and slashing in theaters.