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Writer/director Ti West’s new feature X wears its inspirations lovingly and cleverly on its sleeve, but it is far more than a pastiche of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre even if the set up seems remarkably familiar.
The year is 1979 and the porn industry has just gone mainstream after the success of Deep Throat. Burlesque club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson) decides to take a troupe of amateur adult actors on the road to shoot his new porno The Farmer’s Daughter. Along for the ride is his girlfriend and star, Maxine (Mia Goth), leading man Jackson (Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi), other leading lady Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and two filmmakers RJ (Owen Campbell) and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega).
Venturing out of Huston, Texas, the group find themselves in the rural backwaters of the state in a hired farmhouse owned by the definitely unfriendly Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife Pearl. The idea is for the group to shoot the film with as much cinematic verité (RJ plans to make an ‘art film’) in house and barn on the property and then skip out before the owners twig to what they’re doing. The problem is that the feckless group are naïve enough to think that because they’re young and liberated they are safe from an almighty and bloody judgement that is coming their way.
Ti West’s script is a slow burn that allows for a lot of foreshadowing but withholds the true gore factor until the third act. It is also one that inverts a lot of the slasher tropes of the period he’s referencing. Sex and sexual transgression is often used in the slasher genre for why the protagonists get killed. In this meta commentary sex is at the heart of the film as much as horror and isn’t subtext – it’s text. The monsters of the piece are as interested in sex as the victims, they’ve just reached an age where desire is frustrated. The reminder of youth and vitality that Maxine and her cohorts bestow on Pearl and Howard leads to the gory kills.
West has populated the film with excellent music choices that suit the era and tone extremely aptly. There’s also genius in his editing which manages to ratchet up tension whilst not drawing too much attention to itself. Eliot Rockett’s cinematography is clever and involving – the film is certainly Ti West’s best looking feature.
The ensemble cast is glorious. Brittany Snow’s Bobby-Lynne is delightful in her upfront attitude. She’s there to be a star and considers herself well on the way to becoming one and her brashness is funny and effective. Martin Henderson’s sleazy impresario Wayne carries himself with unearned confidence. Owen Campbell’s cineaste filmmaker, RJ is convinced that he’s going to be able to create something arty and “European” with the no budget film and his genuine commitment to the idea of craft is hilarious. Jenna Ortega as Lorraine, RJ’s girlfriend and initially reluctant participant in the film is sadly a little underused – however as she becomes more sexually uninhibited she helps to set off the bloody chain of events.
The standouts in the cast are Scott Mescudi as Jackson. An ex-marine who served in Vietnam is already on the periphery of a racist white America. When Howard quizzes Wayne as to whether he’s served in the forces, it’s Jackson who reveals his war record and makes clear that he’s had quite enough of being shot at – of course this comes around later in the film in an ironic manner. Finally, Mia Goth, no stranger to genre filmmaking, is the glue that holds the film together. Her freckle-faced Maxine believes that she’s going places and will break into Hollywood. Her affirmations are cocaine-fuelled and darkly funny. Keep an eye out for Goth in an uncredited part that will impress how versatile and essential she is to the film.
The bonkers third act delivers all the gore and inventive kills any slasher fan could want. The practical effects make it especially visceral and if that’s your kind of thing, a lot of fun. The kills are unexpected and mostly inventive, but most of all, well-earned in the film. They aren’t gratuitous or pointless and it’s interesting to see that it’s the male cast that is dispatched first. X also skewers the final girl premise, just as it has skewered beloved slasher tropes.
Ti West has made a meta-slasher that is both reverent to the low budget horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, but also brings something new into its something old premise. There is a philosophical question lurking about the perils of ageing and what that does to the psyche of people already somewhat damaged. West doesn’t get too hung up on the question but lets it sit in the background like the continual presence of a televangelist that is on in the background. Morals are murky, but then in horror films they often are, yet even with a significant body count West refuses to explicitly state that evil stems from moral transgression.
Ultimately X gives the audience a lot to play with. It can be read in several ways, or just experienced as a darkly comic slasher with an excellent ensemble cast. Either way, X delivers on its promise of a good old fashioned horror experience.
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