X Review

X will hit theaters on March 18, 2022.

A ’70s slasher throwback, X is writer-director Ti West’s first film in six years, and his first horror movie in nearly a decade. It feels, in many ways, like an antidote to several recent horror trends, like the self-professed sheen of “prestige horror” from distributors like A24 (who, as it happens, distributed X as well, and manage to have their cake and eat it too). In less intentional course correction, it’s also more cutting homage to Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre than the recent Netflix sequel, which drops the ball in many respects. Set in a secluded farmhouse near Houston in 1979, and following a group of low-budget porno filmmakers, X manages to be fun, thoughtful, and even innovative on occasion, even if its eventual thrills and kills end up peaking rather early.

What makes X especially enticing during its lengthy setup is its characters, who we meet as they pack themselves into a van (winkingly marked “Plowing Service”) en route to the secluded setting. Maxine (Mia Goth), an image-obsessed porn star harboring hints of a mysterious past, is the other woman in the recently crumbled marriage of her producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), who brings the smoothness (and occasional shirtless-ness) of early romcom Matthew McConaughey, but the subtle seediness of McConaissance roles like Dallas in Magic Mike. Maxine is Wayne’s “next big thing,” though she has to share the screen with a more experienced adult actress, the sweet but feisty Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), who has indelible pre-existing chemistry with their co-star Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi a.k.a Kid Cudi), a man who hides his insecurities behind a gruff façade. Rounding out the main cast is RJ (Owen Campbell), a young filmmaker trying to get his start by bringing an avant-garde sensibility to the production — much of X’s commentary on “prestige horror” stems from his misguided perspective — and RJ’s shy, sheltered girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who agrees to help him work the sound equipment without realizing he’s making softcore porn, but who eventually warms up to the idea (much to his dismay).

The characters are fleshed out from the word go, making their every interaction delightful as they head towards inevitable doom; X opens after the bloodshed is dispensed with, but it doesn’t hint at who exactly has died, or how, before flashing back to the previous day. It has no pretense about being anything but a gnarly, cheap-thrills horror flick first and foremost, as unapologetic as the X-rated movie its characters are filming. This comparison comes up implicitly and often, both through dialogue — RJ wants to bring an artistic sensibility to the porno’s story, but the stars insist that people are just going to watch it for the sex — and through a number of fascinating cross-cuts between the actual plot and the film within the film, as tension builds in both stories and X attempts to draw a straight line between sex and violence in the American psyche. It doesn’t always succeed — its initial attempt at commenting on this connection is the overt and clunky appearance of a fear-mongering preacher on TV — but before long, this dynamic takes hold in the movie’s cleverly conceived antagonists.

The cast and crew are hosted by a suspicious, shotgun-toting elderly gentleman with wandering eyes, Howard (Stephen Ure), whose only instructions involve staying clear of the main house and sticking to the nearby guest lodging, so as not to disturb his easily confused wife, Pearl. The trailers already hint at a story in which this aged, demented old woman creeps out of the shadows and is eventually involved in some of the bloodshed, so there’s no real surprise when things go awry in her presence. However, what is surprising is the role she plays in the film’s overt themes. Maxine is the center of attention for Wayne (and for director West), and her dreams of stardom are expressed alongside lingering doubts, even though she insists on projecting a confident vanity as she struts about the property. Pearl is immediately drawn to Maxine, as a reflection of her own lost youth and sexuality; in a move that engenders a strange and complicated sympathy, West casts Goth in the role of Pearl as well, burying her underneath eerie makeup, but intrinsically connecting Pearl’s wistful jealousies to Maxine’s own fears of fleeting time and temporary youth.

This clash between the old and new is at the heart of X, which is, at once, a modern take on a decades-old style of filmmaking, and applies a grimy, 1970s horror classic lens to new ideas. This manifests in a tongue-in-cheek way in an early landscape shot filmed through barn doors, resembling an old 4:3 frame, which pushes slowly forward to reveal its wider frame and its wider, more modern perspective, and it manifests even more overtly as the film goes on. For instance, many recent horror films like The Visit, Hereditary, and IT: Chapter 2 feature a distinct revulsion towards aging bodies — an idea that X not only skillfully subverts, but weaves boldly into its text.

Rather than making Pearl’s resurgent urges — sexual, and otherwise — a matter of disgust, West injects them with a sense of mournful beauty, placing the audience right alongside his apparent “monster.” The first time she kills, it’s hard not to feel for her, and equally hard not to be drawn in by the artistry of the kill itself, which involves an ingeniously conceived lighting change. However, from this point on, the kills don’t really stack up. One is edited in an intriguing way that maximizes its impact. Another is funny and surprising. Few of them, however, are any two of these things at once, and the remaining bloodshed seems to pass by without sticking in the mind or beneath the skin. For all of X’s ruminations on what fans truly want from movies — the sex in porn, and the blood and jump scares in horror — the film’s tension-building is much scarier and more incisive than any of its payoffs.

When it slows down to humanize its villains, it’s oddly reflective and melancholy.

X, though it pokes fun at RJ’s perspective on filmmaking, doesn’t dismiss it outright. The character talks of editing his film in an oblique way, and though we don’t get to see what he means — we’re mostly shown the porno as it’s being shot, mostly in closeups — we do get a blast of tension from West and his co-editor David Kashevaroff during several scene transitions, where footage doubles up and the frames whips back and forth a few times between two consecutive moments. While it sounds like this approach should get repetitive, it’s used in a number of different ways, whether to contrast action and stillness, or to connect story moments with scenes from RJ’s movie, or to simply create anticipation as the screen flickers between one charged moment and the next.

Even though X’s payoffs aren’t always satisfying — they’re gory, but hardly discomforting for anyone who watches enough horror — the film as a whole flows like a murky river with hints of something sinister lurking underneath. It’s fun, and when it slows down to humanize its villains, it’s oddly reflective and melancholy, in a way few modern slasher films dare to be.

Author: Alex Stedman. [Source Link (*), IGN All]