Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: an all too naïve group of young people wander out to a remote part of Texas, only to find themselves terrorised by the locals their presence disturbs. After some years away from filmmaking, Ti West returns to horror movies with X, a gruesome ode to grindhouse features of the ’70s.
Broadly riffing on roadkill slashers ala The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, West wears his influences on his sleeve to celebrate what came before, and pass comment on pearl-clutching detractors, both then and now. A small film crew, headed by smarmy producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) is heading to a cabin in the middle of nowhere in order to shoot some amateur porn.
Actors Jackson (Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and Maxine (Mia Goth), cameraman RJ (Owen Campbell), and assistant Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) make up Wayne’s operation. Their plan is to make a low budget adult film, but one with taste and substance. Something arthouse, that’s no less filled with sex.
They have the perfect location, an isolated shack out by an elderly couple’s farm. A comfy abode for the physical side, with opportunity for establishing shots, and some actual acting. Wary of their small production window, they get to work, with the owners ominously skulking around, increasingly perturbed by all the filth.
West understands his audience, preaching to genre-aficionados through immutable unease. Some cows lay mutilated on the road on the way in, heralding the slaughterhouse. Once everyone’s arrived, a quiet swim becomes an averted catastrophe when an alligator starts creeping in. A hovering drone shot captures the animal quietly moving straight for its prey. Maxine climbs out of the water just in time, seemingly unaware of how close she came to death.
It’s all a tease, mirroring the flirtatious drama of their mock porno. We know where it’s going, and X makes no allusions otherwise. The gratification in the lens glowing red as the decrepit Pearl, also played by Goth, slices her first victim is earned, knowingly and methodically. Like any worthwhile piece of exploitation, once the blood starts flowing, it doesn’t stop until the final climax.
Kills are brutal, sometimes cartoonishly so, and frequently with a visual nod to some classic or other. Shotguns, hatchets, and pitchforks are employed, bodies triple-checked to make sure they’ve well and truly become carcasses. West himself did the editing, a concise blend of stylish flourishes and methodical cutting that guides us through the bedlam.
A pervasive comparison to pornography runs throughout. Even with fanciful edits, X is no elevated horror, and pointedly so. West draws a line between the independent, X-rated features of the ’70s, and amateur adult films in terms of layout, substance, and enjoyment. He indulges the notion they’re ultimately more similar and not, especially in the minds of retrograde conservatives, before showing that such criticism is based on intense envy.
More to stream: The best Netflix horror movies
Pearl, and her husband Howard, despise the youthful freedom of the new generation. They loathe that Jackson, Bobby-Lynne, Maxine, and Lorraine can explore their sexual urges together. There’s resentment that these kids can just travel somewhere and make art together, however lewd, unperturbed by war or hierarchical family values.
The couple represent a duality: Howard wants to control and restrict, trapping one victim in the basement, while Pearl obsesses over Maxine, spying on her. Their marriage has become stale, and in a twisted spur of passion fueled by the surrounding chaos, they re-ignite each other’s desires. Make no mistake: X puts the ‘grind’ in grindhouse in more ways than one.
It’s in West’s own worship that X is let down. The amount of homage, however incidental, comes close to pastiche. While far from something like Cabin in the Woods, the winks do on occasion distract from West’s individual style and craftsmanship. As the director of chilling ghost movie The Innkeepers, and 2013’s ghoulish The Sacrament, West has a reputation for his tonal shifts and sharp aesthetic. We don’t need further proof he’s well-read in terror.
Alas, this is a minor gripe. The cast has such flair, with Mescudi’s swagger, Henderson’s smarm, and Goth’s simmering electricity, that any dip in attention is immediately recovered. X is a film that makes the most out of everyone involved, without relying too much on any one aspect or performance.
A televangelist occasionally pops up whenever a TV is in view, spouting the usual rhetoric of repentance, and obeying God’s will.There’s a comparison to be made here too, with the way West has so confidently returned to cinema as if he didn’t take a break for six years. We, the converted, stand to attention.
Heinous: The best horror movies of 2021
Towards the end, the local sheriff makes a quip about what kind of film is going to turn up on RJ’s camera when they play back the footage. It’ll be dirty, it’ll be nasty, and it’ll be X-rated, and anyone who doesn’t like it will just have to live with it.
Ti West’s X brings the horror movie director back in expectedly garish style.