X (2022 film) ★★★

Though Ti West’s indie slasher X only released last week, it’s a story innately familiar to any fans of horror. In an act of loving homage to 1970s grindhouse classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, X renders explicit sex and gore for crowd-pleasing entertainment. The film abides by a self-aware “give the people what they want” mentality, which comes across in its straightforward structure of tense set-ups resulting in bloody payoffs. West’s dedication to slasher film formulas and production details offers an undeniably well-crafted return to a beloved style, without a great deal of modernization; the film serves as something of a time capsule, recapturing a bygone aesthetic without a great deal of modern influence or concern for current trends in horror cinema. 

The film uses a reflexive, meta narrative that orients itself toward the viewer, without exactly breaking the fourth wall. A group of six actors and filmmakers set out to shoot a porno in Texas to become a hit on the order of Debbie Does Dallas. The tastes of the fictive adult film director, RJ, align with highbrow European styles, as he strives to bring an artistic slant to the pornography genre and create a “good dirty film.” Scott Mescudi (better known under his performing name Kid Cudi), Brittany Snow, and Martin Henderson star as veteran pornstars, while Mia Goth plays a coke-addicted bombshell newcomer, Maxine, who possesses the coveted “X” factor which Henderson’s character hopes will turn their dirty film into a hit (the film’s title referring to both this and the X rating assigned to pornographic videos.) However, the crew’s plans change when they arrive at the guest house on the ranch of an elderly couple, who disapprove of their relaxed demeanors and suspect mischief. From there, tensions grow as the sex-deprived matriarch meets the pornographers, while her rancher husband becomes bitter on account of his impotence and jealousy of his wife’s urges. A typical slasher narrative ensues from this tongue-in-cheek set-up, with graphic kills happening over the course of a single night at this isolated locale. 

In its content, X serves up many sight gags involving nudity and sudden transitions. The refreshing inclusion of obscenities infrequently shown in film including male genitals and exposed elderly bodies reflect West’s cheeky direction. The contemporary song selections also gel with the setting, featuring a cover of ‘Landslide’ and a memorable sequence accompanied by Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’. Goth gives a sympathetic performance as Maxine and delivers on the erotic appeal of her character’s potential porn-stardom. The depiction of the elderly villains however is uncanny at best, suffering from the same problems as 2018’s Suspiria, in which young people in old age make-up creates a strange disconnect that stretches believability for viewers. Aside from their physical quirks, the script generates some pity for the barren sex lives of the elderly, whose dissatisfaction manifests in a number of forms, which are mostly hostile and perverse.

X is a “good dirty film,” though it is fairly light entertainment: the kills aren’t exceptionally disturbing, the horror doesn’t terrify, and the porn stays softcore. This isn’t to say that the film lacks excitement, West delivers an exceptional slow-burn in the first half, which devolves into a satisfying bloodbath in the second. The plotting carefully introduces many elements integral to the setting which later feature in brutal kills as the plot unfolds. The setting of late-’70s Texas is depicted with immaculate attention to cinematic styles and horror tropes. Retro styles like grainy film stock in certain shots, wipe transitions between scenes, and a love of zoom lenses and deep staging are just some of the inspired callbacks to classic film forms. One standout transition which I’ve only witnessed previously in the 1969 biker movie smash Easy Rider alternates shots of the previous scene and several times before resuming with the new action. West’s studious directing style creates a strong sense of momentum; character movement within single shots, and perfectly timed edits create a dynamic flow from one scene to the next. 

By design, X does not reinvent the slasher genre. Instead, it emulates classic genre entries with such insight that, had it been released in the 1970s, it would most probably have a dedicated cult following today. In terms of modern horror, ‘70s homage is less of a novelty then it once was- directors like Rob Zombie and Eli Roth have deconstructed and capitalized on the grotesque extremity of the grindhouse style for 20 years. Yet, X offers pulpy, satisfying thrills, in a tight narrative which feels taken from a bygone era, unaffected by the past several decades of stylistic changes within the genre. X is refreshing in its simplicity; it gives you the sex, violence, and shocks it knows you want.

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