Director Ti West has been making what the kids call “elevated horror” since before A24 became the studio synonymous with the term whenever releasing something more thrilling than indie. X marks West’s return to the genre for the first time in feature film form since 2013’s The Sacrament. It’s a welcome return, as this may be his most crowd-pleasing effort yet. While relying on a familiar setup and even taking it to racy extremes, there’s a clear effort to play as a commentary on filmmaking and an analysis of newer versus older regimes. Even when considering the brutality and carnality of it all, this is a slasher flick with a clever head on its shoulders…before it gets chopped off.
The film is set in the 70s. It focuses on a party of six headed to a secluded farmhouse in Texas to shoot an adult film. Executive producer Wayne (Martin Henderson channeling Matthew McConaughey) has procured this location from a reclusive elderly couple without filling them in on too many details. While the husband (Stephen Ure) may be a bit of a grump, it would appear his wife, Pearl, is the one with a personal interest in what these younger folk are up to.
It’s easy to play the blender game, and note how X serves as a mashup of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Evil Dead, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and plenty of gritty movies in between all of those. Fortunately, West is a smart enough filmmaker to be aware of his audience. If he wanted to simply deliver a splatterfest, he could, and really, he does. Still, there are deeper layers to X, which I expected from the man behind The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers.
As the film builds towards its more horrific elements, a lot of focus is put on aspiring filmmaker RJ’s (Owen Campbell) justification of wanting to make an actual art film during this shoot. The others believe him to be kidding himself, including his sheepish girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who is handling sound. However, West, himself, deploys plenty of stylistic tricks to maximize the limited budget, unique location (they filmed in New Zealand), and efforts to separate X from the films inspired it while also showing he’s a student of them.
It’s interesting to see the directorial approaches when looking at so many other (and often lesser) slasher films that arrived since the days of Tobe Hooper’s proto-slasher, let alone Halloween. Sure, the 80s were the heyday of cashing in on the genre with little regard to deeper subtext. However, in the various revivals of slasher films throughout the past few decades, while some leave more of a lasting impression than others (Scream), it’s always curious to see how those inspirations can affect the filmmaker.
Looking at the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example, while that film has its own sensibilities and is perhaps more fun than “good,” it shows little in the way of discipline that West is attempting here. Deliberate camera setups in X allow for wide, ominous shots that sometimes feature something creepy turning up in certain parts of the frame. Some sequences rely on clever editing to relay what’s taking place in a given moment when it comes to tracking some of the characters along with what violent chaos may be happening elsewhere.
Similarly, X also does its best to never fail the characters. Regardless of what stock types they may all be portraying, the work is done to not only have us care about this young group making it out of a desperate situation but even find empathy in the film’s villainous couple. That’s not to say their murdering ways are not awful, but the strides taken to allow for more than just one dimension are appreciated.
The cast indeed came to play. Mia Goth leads the film as Maxine, producer Wayne’s fiancé, and co-star the movie they are shooting. She forms the closest bond to one of the elderly pair in the short time they have staying at this farmhouse, and the film finds a twisted way to explore that dynamic and the implied themes. Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) and Brittany Snow play the other stars of the dirty movie, both of whom are given a sense of agency to show just how aware they are of the times they are living in and how things have changed in society.
That last bit informs at least some of the conflict shared between many of the characters. First coming through in implications and physical performances, only to later come through in the dialogue, debates arise concerning the assumed morality of a more conservative era versus the free-spirited ways of a progressive future. The ways both sides are tested within the confines of a slasher movie allows X to have more going on than some may expect when considering this is also a film about lining some innocents up for the slaughter.
That also brings up another fine thing to note – X can be pretty scary. The thrills come from an effective build-up of tension in several instances, along with gory payoffs, killer editing choices, and a level of griminess that persists thanks to some production design choices, along with the throwback cinematography. West may have been a fan of conveying extended periods of lingering dread in the past, but for X, a skilled use of humor and suspense keeps things paced rather well before delivering on some violent mayhem.
Even while indebted to grindhouse horror of the past, Ti West brings his sensibilities to the table, making for a stronger and more well-versed slasher film than average. Give or take a few choices that still feel a little standard for this sort of fare, X plays on expectations in the right way when it comes to what horror can deliver. The results are a lot of bloody fun.