The stunning opening shot of writer-director Ti West’s slyly audacious retro slasher flick, simply titled X, feels like a mini mission statement. Within the narrow window of a 1:37 Academy ratio frame, a nondescript two-story farmhouse squats on a green Texas hillock. The clouds appear pasted into the blue-gray sky, and a distant windmill stands motionless in the 35mm haze. It could very well be a pastoral painting – until a vintage police squad car slowly pulls up the dusty driveway, roughly 15 seconds into the film. Approximately 5 seconds after this, a magic trick unfolds before the audience’s eyes: The black matte areas on the sides of the windowboxed frame appear to slide outward, easing the film into a more contemporary 1:90 ratio. It takes a moment or two for the viewer to register that this is not accomplished through a post-production effect. The “aspect ratio change” is, in fact, merely an in-camera push in through the open doorway of the nearby barn. The mattes are nothing more than the vertical jambs of the barn door, which appear nearly black when backlit by the blinding late-summer sun outside.
Every facet of this unassuming flourish – the highlighting of cinema’s inherent chicanery, the reliance on practical filmmaking technique, and the cheeky acknowledgement of the past in the technical vernacular of the present – reflects West’s broader approach in X. It is the filmmaker’s best feature to date by a substantial margin, in large part due to how effortlessly it syncretizes so many different components within a giddily lowbrow package. It impresses not merely because it expresses a deceptively rich panoply of ideas, but because it does so with astonishing finesse, and without compromising the first principles of the slasher flick. Indeed, West fixes his gaze on the essence of the subgenre as though it were a morning star that can guide his film to gorehound glory. In short: A gaggle of young, beautiful people arrive at an isolated locale, where they will be slaughtered one by one by a remorseless killer. The murders will be gruesome and baroque. One woman will survive. Along the way, there will be tits.
The hapless meat in this instance is the cast and crew of a DIY adult-film production in Texas, 1979. This enterprise is the brainchild of Wayne (Martin Henderson), the manager of a small-time strip club marooned incongruously in Houston’s petro-industrial suburban hinterlands. Wayne is a forward-thinking sort – or so he likes to tell himself – and he is eager to claim a slice of the nascent home-video smut market for himself. To that end, he has enlisted some local talent to shoot a budget porn film in a single weekend. The actors-to-be include club dancers Maxine (Mia Goth) and Bobby-Lynne (a very game Brittany Snow), as well as the latter woman’s ex-Marine sometimes-boyfriend Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi). Maxine, incidentally, is also Wayne’s girlfriend, and whether due to his shrewd encouragement or her own myopic dreams, she is convinced that she is on the cusp of dirty-movie stardom. (A confidence facilitated, admittedly, by the occasional bump of cocaine.)
To handle directing duties, Wayne has hired a pretentious film student named RJ (Owen Campbell), who brings along his cagy girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) as a sound tech. The assembled cast and crew pile into Wayne’s van on a Friday afternoon and head out into the muggy, mosquito-infested boonies of southeast Texas. Wayne has made arrangements to use the outbuilding on a remote farm as a shooting location. Said farm is owned by a haggard old misanthrope named Howard (Stephen Ure), who waves his shotgun around with a bit too much enthusiasm and evidently has no notion of what these dissolute city slickers are up to on his property. Howard’s wife, Pearl, is allegedly frail and easily confused, and the only glimpse that the new arrivals get of her is the pallid figure lingering in the farmhouse’s bedroom window.
With its dilapidated barn bristling with rusty tools and nearby bayou crawling with alligators, the farm makes for a wonderful slasher-movie setting. However, X is all about the slow seduction, notwithstanding the enterprising enthusiasm that Bobby-Lynne and Jackson evince when they throw themselves into the first sex scene in Wayne’s opus, The Farmer’s Daughters. It’s not until 58 minutes into X’s 105-minute running time that the blood starts flying, but that lengthy lead time is far from wasted. West and his collaborators – including cinematographer Eliot Rockett, co-editor David Kashevaroff, and composers Tyler Batles and Chelsea Wolfe – exhibit a magnificent affinity for conjuring a thick, woozy tension, even when nothing all that menacing is happening on screen. A pall of grubby doom permeates the farm’s sun-dazzled, overgrown meadows and murky, moldering interiors, and its potency is only enhanced by the characters’ general obliviousness to it. Maxine alone seems to sense that something is not quite right about this place, and about the addled Pearl in particular – the old woman is too familiar, too fervent, too famished.
The viewer has the benefit of foreknowledge – the film’s flash-forward prelude promises a staggering but indeterminate bloodbath to come – and a metatextual awareness of what to expect from creepy, run-down farmhouses in 1970s Texas. Wayne & co., however, have no notion that they are the victims in a slasher film, and they behave with all the sleazy Lone Star spunk that one would expect of penny-ante pornographers eager to make a quick buck and have a good time while doing so. And why should they be wary, after all? Howard and Pearl might be grotesque and off-putting, but two doddering senior citizens hardly seem like a credible physical threat to six vigorous young adults, one of whom is a two-tour Vietnam veteran.
However, the local televangelist squawking from seemingly every radio and television in the film underscores that the anything-goes sexual revolution is still locked in a scorched-earth stalemate with puritanical, reactionary forces. West’s screenplay is not exactly skeptical of sensualism: It bluntly puts a pansexual, polyamorous, do-what-feels-good ethos in the ample mouths of its characters and does nothing to imply that they are in the wrong. However, the film does suggest that self-satisfied victory laps are perhaps premature when millions still respond with an “Amen!” to hysterical, demon-haunted rhetoric that equates pleasure with evil. And there is nothing that a repressed soul despises more than a libertine, if only because they inspire a secret envy.
Indeed, when Pearl catches a glimpse of Wayne’s smutty little enterprise, it unleashes a deluge of self-pitying anguish about the beauty and pleasures that time has stolen from her. In short order, that regret mutates into resentment and murderous rage. When X finally lurches decisively and spectacularly into gore-drenched horror, it doesn’t engender Psycho-esque narrative and genre whiplash. It feels like the moment when a backlash that’s been slowly building like an offshore thunderhead finally breaks into a throat-stabbing, eyeball-gouging, gator-chomping storm. (West does namecheck Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, albeit mostly to dismiss the similarities and to amusingly call attention to RJ’s heedless cinematic illiteracy.)
West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) has always been a filmmaker with a supremely keen-eyed and intuitive sense of the horror genre – its raw mechanics, its aesthetic conventions, and its visceral appeal. However, X finds him flaunting a heretofore unprecedented virtuosic sophistication when it comes to balancing high and low art. By this critic’s reckoning, X is operating on at least four different levels simultaneously. As noted, it is a glorious, straight-no-chaser slasher flick, in which the seat-squirming pleasures of looming danger and gruesome violence (plus bonus gratuitous nudity) are served up without a whiff of ironic detachment.
It is also a wet and sloppy homage to the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and 80s. The fact that the characters are themselves cluelessly plucky, happily perverse DIY filmmakers is certainly not incidental, but X also looks and feels like a movie that could have been made four decades ago. Compared to West’s previous features, it is less of a one-to-one aesthetic pastiche of a bygone mode of filmmaking. It’s nonetheless drenched in the sticky, scuzzy vibe of vintage exploitation cinema – especially the hothouse Southern variety that birthed features like Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Squirm (1976), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and Eaten Alive (1977). (Interestingly, X also strongly echoes the California-set killer-granny flick The Touch of Satan, a 1971 drive-in relic notoriously unearthed by Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
Without sacrificing its raunchy credibility, X also manages to be an unsettling, even melancholy art-horror film about carnal repression, bodily deterioration, and the intergenerational cycle of disgust and resentment. It might be the best genre film about aging since Death Becomes Her (1992), one that accounts for both the grotesque tragedy of it as a personal experience and the cold equity of it as a universal constant. Everyone is doomed to become wrinkly, saggy, and flaccid someday, after all – just as everyone is doomed to eventually resent the young their beauty, vitality, and limitless potential.
Notwithstanding its engagement with such heavy themes, however, X is last but not least an impish piss-take of the whole ludicrous concept of “elevated horror.” This is most conspicuous in the film’s treatment of RJ, whose pompous artistic ambitions for Wayne’s dollar-store titty flick are positioned as so much delusional, self-inflated nonsense. Why put lipstick on a pig that would be much happier wallowing in the muck? More broadly, however, the very existence of West’s film serves as a vulgar rejoinder to the false dichotomy of art versus trash. It is a gooey, ebullient orgy of the lewd and the learned, the squalid and the sumptuous – without the morning-after awkwardness that plagues so many big-swing art-horror gambles.
X is now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.