Written and Directed by: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, Brittany Snow, and Jenna Ortega
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Dying to show you a good time.
It feels fitting that Ti West has found his way beneath the A24 banner. In many ways, his early efforts like House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are like the ur-texts for the signature genre fare the darling indie label has often released to critical acclaim: those slow-burn, minimalist horrors that thrive on atmosphere and mood, crafted with a perceptible artfulness that may have had a hand in inspiring the dreaded “elevated” label. At the time, I think some were even trying to force other labels onto them, like “mumblegore” or ‘deathwave,” and you can follow that thread right up to West’s latest film, X, which feels destined to become a cornerstone of whatever we finally end up calling this cultural moment.
Returning to the genre after a nearly decade-long hiatus, West has interjected a sharp, wry riposte into a conversation that’s become crowded by overwrought discussions of subtext and cultural criticism. What if, West supposes with X, we just let horror films be fucked up again? What if we returned to its primal roots and admitted that, more often than not, we’re here to see some depraved shit? What if West and his ilk have just inherited the rickety thrones from exploitation hucksters and carnival barkers, peddling unseemly wares to curious audiences who want to delight in the macabre? And what if it was okay to admit that we like it when these folks are really good at giving us what we want, no matter how screwy those desires might be?
West finds a brilliant entry point into this conversation by exploiting the quintessential forbidden fruit: pornography, a disreputable artform that many condemn to the same low-end of the spectrum as horror movies. He blends both together with X, as he ships a group of enterprising, outsider wannabe pornstars to the rural wilds of 70s Texas, where they hope to shoot at an ominous farmhouse that vaguely resembles the one from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Executive producer and obvious shit-kicker Wayne (Martin Henderson doing a greaseball McConaughey riff) has booked the adjacent boarding house but hasn’t told the elderly property owners what he and his crew will be doing during this sordid weekend. Once the old couple finds out, though, it predictably sets them off—albeit not for the typical, moralistic reasons that often motivate slasher villains.
Let’s just say that, for all of his obvious nods towards The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the thing West takes to heart and has the most fun with is the insistence of that film’s opening narration that its horrific events were “all the more tragic in that they were young.” X cleverly seizes on this, foregrounding both the vitality and virility of its younger set. Like their innumerable slasher counterparts, they feel free to indulge their hedonistic whims, and they’re likewise punished accordingly—only, this time, it’s because their tormentors wish they could still get in on this kind of action. Cleaving right through psychoanalysis that accompanies the sexually repressed antagonists of slasher movies, West has conjured up a couple of old timers who make no bones about, well, wanting to bone. They don’t feel sexually repressed so much as they feel oppressed by the ravages of time: poor old Howard (Stephen Ure) laments that his heart won’t be able to take it, while Pearl (Mia Goth, who pointedly also plays one of the kids) longs to be the beauty that once dazzled all the boys. In X, it’s not all the more tragic that the victims are young: it’s all the more fucked-up that the killers are old.
There’s something remarkably fresh about this that speaks to West’s larger aim to hack right through the morass that’s transformed one of the our most primal sub-genres into a thorny discourse of politics, both sexual and otherwise. Not that there’s anything wrong with exploring subtexts—it’s just that, sometimes, it’s nice to let the reptilian part of your brain take over and enjoy these things for the reasons that drew you to horror in the first place. Transgression in wide-release horror is increasingly rare, especially the kind found in X, a movie that summons memories from the vintage grindhouse era, where sex and violence were frequent bedfellows in psychosexual shockers like Blood and Lace, Deranged, and Keep My Grave Open. Where so many modern slashers summon the ghosts of their more commodified and refined 80s predecessors, this one goes further back to the rough-and-tumble roots, when filmmakers employed more than latex and karo syrup to provoke audiences. Something about X feels fundamentally squalid, particularly in the way West wants to rub your nose in the nastiness with a provocateur’s glee. I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve left a multiplex theater feeling like a filmmaker shocked the normies with unrepentant sleaze, and X joins that list.
But don’t worry: West has plenty of latex and karo syrup at his disposal here, and he unleashes it with aplomb, allowing X to drip with gore and style once it ramps up. In typical West fashion, it’s deliberately paced, slowly building towards an outrageous, unrelenting bloodbath that makes up the second half of the film. West conducts this movement like a true composer: a hushed rendition of Fleetwood Mac provides an ominous prelude to the carnage, which kicks off in earnest when Pearl brutally claims her first victim as “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blares from a nearby van. A symphony of pure mayhem follows, with West orchestrating an assortment of pitchforks, shotguns, and one very aggressive alligator. And while it’s all sharply paced, sporting a thrilling blend of suspense and shocks, what really rules is West’s exuberance in showing off the gore. Forget the tasteful restraint of suggested, off-screen violence: X revels in its sick effects work, its camera dwelling on all of the butchered bodies and splattered skulls. West is especially playful with a pair of the gags by leading you to believe he’s going to hold back, only to slightly delay the money shot, making it even more effective. Plenty of modern horror films are content to echo the past; X does plenty of that but often goes the extra step of putting an extra grace note on the familiar beats.
That’s the real clever twist with X: it jabs at slasher conventions rather than completely butchering them, and the thrust of its genre commentary essentially boils down to insisting that we shouldn’t overthink these things. During his signature slow burn to start the film, West layers on the customary aesthetics, crafting dread from the macabre, sun-soaked atmospherics and developing characters by hanging out with them, allowing their personalities to shine. Former final girl Brittany Snow is tremendous as Bobby-Lynne, a firecracker porn star who relishes her part in the production. Opposite her is Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, cementing her place as a horror), who’s agreed to work the sound but finds herself drawn into the perverse world she’s joined. She insists she’s not a prude, yet her doe eyes betray her until she dives in headlong into the production, effectively knocking the film off of its axis as West toys with the “final girl” conventions. Then there’s Goth, first taking on the role of Maxine, the actress who lusts for stardom throughout the film. Introduced giving herself affirmations in the mirror between lines of coke, Maxine paradoxically carries herself with a vulnerable swagger: you sense her burgeoning porn career is an escape of some sort, maybe an opportunity for her to become her best self, laying the foundation for the quintessential slasher arc that finds a woman emphatically forging her identity out blood and guts. It just so happens to be the only one (to my knowledge) where she does it while facing off against her older doppelganger, giving us the unique opportunity to enjoy Goth’s distinct screen presence.
However, this expository stretch also allows West to establish a little bit of a meta framework by juxtaposing the in-movie porno shoot with the conventions of the slasher movie, drawing a clear parallel between the disreputable mediums. It’s a clever, artful way for West to interject into a crowded conversation about deconstructing slashers, and he follows the notion to its logical endpoint, stripping the genre down to its base, crowd-pleasing elements as his characters debate the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of their own production. During the debate, Wayne, leaning into his role as mercenary money man, just wants to give the people what they want: beautiful people fucking (it should be noted that he drives a van advertising “plowing services”). On the other hand, his director (Owen Campbell) doesn’t just want to make your basic porno: he wants to employ fancy camerawork and avant garde editing, an absurd notion that the rest of the crew scoffs at. “It’s possible to make a good dirty movie,” he insists, conjuring up similar debates about the horror genre itself. And while I think West agrees in-theory with this ill-fated auteur, he’s noticeably the first one to be put up on the chopping block once X pivots to its slasher movie mayhem. Also significant: Wayne is the next one to get it, perhaps signaling West’s belief that we should be past this discourse. Rather than constantly squabble about the validity of a disreputable art form, maybe we should just embrace the form itself. Of course it’s possible to make a good horror movie, and West proceeds to craft X as evidence for this thesis statement: “this is how it’s done,” he seems to be saying as he stages an absolutely thrilling slasher movie.
Most importantly, West does this with a crucial sense of playfulness. He doesn’t pitch X from a place of judgment or pretense, nor is he pontificating about the state of the genre. Instead, he’s just made a hell of a slasher movie that’s aware of its place in the arc of history: we’re at a post-post-modernist point now, where everything’s been said and done, so the only logical thing to do is fuck around and have a good time. It reminds me of how, for all its meta-posturing, Scream ultimately falls prey to very conventions it mocks, only X does it for damn near half its runtime and does it with an even nastier sense of irreverence. If Scream was about crafting a sharp, smart rendition of a crowd-pleasing slasher, then X is about updating the genre’s more provocative forbearers, those grindhouse productions that wanted to make you squirm and cheer in equal measure. I obviously love Scream, but there’s a reason that movie became a mainstream hit, whereas X feels like it was illicitly smuggled into theaters for a more degenerate crowd. I’m not saying one is a more true or pure horror experience, but there’s something to be said for a movie that’s gleefully pushing against the boundaries of tact and taste. Ultimately, it’s somewhat ironic that West and A24—two pillars of the “elevated horror” conversation—have conspired to simply deliver a primal slasher that’s gory, grimy, and cheeky for the sheer hell of it.
And, to be fair, X isn’t some willfully ignorant, brainless affair. Its blending of porn and slasher movies inherently calls to attention the latter’s much mused-upon sexual politics. Critics and scholars have long noted the conservative streak running through the genre, which often punishes promiscuity and debauchery. Forgetting for a second that it’s usually complete psychopaths carrying out the butchery, this pattern does largely hold true (and was only codified by Scream itself by Randy’s rules). X seems to be acutely aware of it, blaring a star-spangled 1979 title card that perches us right on the edge of the Moral Majority’s reign during the Reagan era. A televangelist drones on every TV set (including Howard and Pearl’s), lamenting the country’s decaying values and seemingly acting as a mouthpiece for conservatism that’s become interlaced with this genre.
Of course, it’s all misdirection, as West rewires the sexual dynamics with his envious old-timers, who want to kill simply because they can’t fuck anymore, allowing him to lay bare the real political thrust of this movies. It’s not that slashers are usually conservative; if anything, conservatism is the boogeyman that’s typically vanquished. X reveals that everybody goes a little mad sometimes, even the wild freaks who lament that their misspent youth has faded away and now lingers like a ghost. Maybe X is a shot across the bow, aimed directly at the same conservative mindset that still decries these films: what if their rage was really motivated by sheer, hypocritical jealousy of young kids who can still party and fuck to their hearts’ content?
But there I go overthinking things again. It could just as well be that X features elderly horny maniacs simply because it’s so disorienting and strange. The thing about X is that you can have your cake and eat it too: if you absolutely want to see it as a treatise on the slasher genre, you’re free to do so. If you just want to take it at face value and enjoy it as a rollicking, playful riff on a familiar theme, you can do that. But the fact that the former explicitly leads you to the latter has me thinking that X is best enjoyed with the kind of pure mindset that drew us all to this genre in the first place. West is just a modern iteration of the old huckster, daring us to come take a look, inviting us to look all the way behind his unseemly curtain, where it turns out the greatest trick under a schlock master’s sleeve is expert craftsmanship. Don’t call it “elevated:” just call it “one goddamn fucked-up horror picture.”
Note: I had the privileging of writing about X and the newest Texas Chainsaw Massacre over at Secret Handshake!
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