He directed two earlier features that are still relatively difficult to come by, but Ti West broke onto the genre scene with 2009’s The House of the Devil. The slowburn horror film has atmosphere to spare and kicked off a sporadic film career with both lows (Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, 2009) and highs (The Innkeepers, 2011). 2016 saw him deliver a terrifically underappreciated western with In the Valley of Violence before hopping over to the greener, more reliable pastures of television. Six years later, though, and West is back to both feature films and the horror genre with the stylishly satisfying 70s-set slasher, X. Gory goods and a twin affection for both characters and the craft of filmmaking make for a memorable ride marred only by one unnecessarily distracting choice.
It’s 1979, and stripclub owner turned film producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) knows he’s on the cusp of something big. Pornography is heading home, and he’s hoping to ride that VHS and vagina-fueled wave all the way to the bank. He hops into a van alongside his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), her fellow stripper Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), her boyfriend Jackson (Scott Mescudi), and a film crew consisting of director RJ (Owen Campbell) and sound girl Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), and they head out to a remote farm in rural Texas. They’re planning to shoot a porn film called The Farmer’s Daughters, and what the nice old couple renting out the space don’t know won’t hurt ’em — but, of course, the couple finds out the truth soon enough. And they’re really not all that nice.
X is yet another example that we might just be in a new golden age of slashers, but while far too much ink and blood is spilled on franchise reboots and sequels (Scream, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Slumber Party Massacre, etc), West comes roaring back to the big screen with an original creation every bit as worthy of your time and money. Meticulously crafted to evoke (but not mimic) 70s-style endeavors, X captures the raw energy and enthusiasm of characters and a time when everything still seemed possible. We spend time with these characters, fall for their charms, and cringe knowing what’s heading their way — that being bloody deaths leaving their bodies sliced, stabbed, mangled, and mauled. There’s just one thing holding it all back…
This is far from a spoiler, but skip this paragraph if you’re highly sensitive to such things. Ready? The elderly couple is played by younger actors in old person prosthetics. Again, not really a spoiler as it’s immediately evident to anyone paying even the slightest attention to the screen, and the result is viewers constantly thinking about that element rather than becoming fully immersed in the world X is crafting. Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Goth, pulling double duty) are convincing in their normal mannerisms from the slow, creaky gaits to the exasperated speech patterns, but once the killing starts their spryness doubles down on screaming “younger performer in old age makeup!” There’s a purpose to it, but it’s still an unfortunate and endlessly distracting choice.
Happily, the core of X is focused on the gang of budding filmmakers, and writer/director West shows an endearing and engaging affinity for their spirit and drive. A preacher spouting pious bullshit on a television and Lorraine’s naive puritanism offer pushback, but the film lets these characters live, breathe, and feel real in their passions and personalities. They’re all likable too, something far too many horror films fail to realize is an essential element to viewers caring about a character’s fate, and we’re left laughing and singing along with them — the “Landslide” sequence is as touching and human a moment as you’re likely to find in a slasher — and giving a damn about what comes next.
Maxine has aspirations of stardom, Bobby-Lynne is a bubbly girl enjoying her time both on and off camera, and Lorraine is open to understanding the freedom society’s taught her to fear. The guys are equally memorable with both Jackson and Wayne revealing more depth than the genre typically allows its potential male victims to show. All of them feel distinct with varying degrees of charm, but Henderson, an always reliable character actor, deserves special accolades for turning what could have been a throwaway role into one who exudes charm and goofy confidence.
Sex and drugs have long been markers for who lives and who dies in the slasher genre, but we’ve moved well past the moral code of it all. X presses a porn shoot up against bloody murder but refuses to make it mark anyone in particular for a “moral” demise, and instead it’s far more of a condemnation on what’s to come — this is the end of the 70s, the end of an open sexual revolution before Ronald Reagan and the rise of televangelists painted the human body as something to be hidden away and shamed. It’s evident in both the film’s themes and in the motivation for the killer(s), but not quite in the way you’re expecting.
West is lamenting the loss with X, not just of sexual freedoms but of filmmaking ones too. True indie filmmakers are still a thing, but various factors (cost, technology, the internet) now mean literally anyone can get a film out there to some degree. Seeing these characters invest physically with both optimism and enthusiasm is energizing, and even RJ’s hope to craft “a good dirty movie” using avant-garde methods he learned from the French New Wave leaves you rooting for these silly bastards to escape unscathed.
Of course, this is a horror film, and West doesn’t skimp on the gory goods. Practical effects work (from Weta no less) turn injuries big and small into intense, squirm-inducing beats, and the camera never shies away from any of it. One sequence splashes the van’s headlights with blood adding a red filter over the proceedings while others leave viewers cringing at violence leveled against hands, feet, eyes, and more. It’s all saved for the third-act, but it’s worth the wait as X shifts gears from terrific 70s character piece to gore-drenched horror film.
While West isn’t trying to mimic a 70s-style film with X — he’s happily not interested in faux-grindhouse aesthetics like artificial film alterations — he and cinematographer Eliot Rockett show an eye for detail and skill in capturing the artistry and feel of it all. The opening shot presents as a pre-widescreen aspect ratio before moving forward and revealing itself as simply a look outward through a doorway. The film’s editors (West and David Kashevaroff) tap out of some scenes with a timed stuttering teasing the shift into something new, while composers Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe offer mood-setting sounds that vary from the energetic to the haunting.
X is West and friends firing an all cylinders — again, aside from the highly unfortunate detail noted above — with a horror film that touches your heart and bathing suit areas equally before unleashing hell. My own heart still belongs to The Innkeepers, but X is a memorable return to form that shows he’s far from done with the genre that birthed him. (And on that note, be sure to stay through the end credits for something special…)