It’s been almost 10 years since filmmaker Ti West’s latest horror outing The Sacramant (2013), his divisive found footage adaptation of the Jonestown Massacre. Before that, West made a name for himself with his meritorious throwback tributes The House Of The Devil (2008) and The Innkeepers (2011), and he’s mostly been keeping himself busy since with directing episodes of various horror TV series plus one western feature, 2016’s In A Valley Of Violence.
But he’s back at it again now, with the first entry of what he’s intending to be the setup of a full trilogy, no less, the second part of which, a prequel to X that’s currently in post and is tentatively titled Pearl, is reported to already having been shot back-to-back with X.
Anyone who’s ever seen Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which I’m assuming will be the majority of this site’s frequent visitors, will find the synopsis for X similar if not near-identical to it, but I’ll give a brief rundown anyway. A merry band of adult-film makers arrive (in, guess what, an old van) at an old farmhouse somewhere in Texas (because, of course – although it was actually shot in New Zealand) sometime in 1979.
Film producer Wayne (Martin Henderson, The Ring, Everest) has rented a remodelled barn for actresses Maxine (Mia Goth, Suspiria, High Life) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow, Hangman, Prom Night), actor Jackson (‘Kid Cudi’ Scott Mescudi, Crisis, Need For Speed) and director RJ (Owen Campbell, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, Depraved) with his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenny Ortega, Scream, Studio 666) to shoot a porn movie in.
The farm’s owners are an elderly couple, Howard (Stephen Ure, The Lord Of The Rings, Deathgasm) and Pearl (also Goth, on double duty). Howard is wary and aloof towards his tenants, but Pearl is captivated by their youthfulness, something that is sparking her dormant sexual passion. A passion that, once shunned, turns murderous.
Much has already been said and written about X’s perceived or intended themes – the tragic antagonism of old age, the transcience of youthful beauty, the perils of unsatiated desires. West even touches on typecasting and identity. But X is by no means a heavy-handed social commentary.
West is playing with all of it, having fun with it and it seems to me, first and foremost, that he intends his viewer to do the same, making X a retro-vibed slasher film that exudes a light-hearted, almost jolly atmosphere, tongue often firmly planted in cheek as West also did in his earlier horror films. He knows he’s making a low-budget horror movie, makes the most of what he has to work with and injects it with his own style.
A typical Ti West type of film, as amply evident in X, may not be something that everyone will evenly appreciate. He takes his sweet time building up his story and establishing his characters, even though he provides a little background to them. We get to know who they are, how they function within the film’s narrative framework and what their individual role in the ensemble entails – and the cast is small enough, and the story straightforward enough, to not get confused anyway.
However, save for Goth’s characters, we never get to know how they became who and what they are. This essentially reduces each of them to slasher fodder without any significant arc, but West lets us spend enough time with them. We get acquainted with each of them enough to know what personality they bring to the table and they’re relatable enough to get invested in them. As a result, X unfolds as an unhurried, almost leisurely-paced affair. And, being a slasher film about an adult movie crew, one with some blood, gore and nudity are thrown into the proceedings for good measure.
Lack of character backgrounds is a deliberate decision, especially considering the amount of meticulosity West, who penned X himself, imbues it with. Every detail, however minute and blink-or-you’ll-miss-it casual as some of them may be, receives a proper payoff further down the film’s stretch. That’s solid screenwriting and should really go without saying when you think about it.
But in the light of the nigh endless stream of overblown dreck with patched-together, sloppy sub-par scripts in this day and age it’s worth noting all the same that something so elementary as writing at least gets the attention it needs and deserves. And for who remembers the original TCM: that one didn’t provide much in the way of background to anyone either, and didn’t need any for it to work how it did. X’s story and the way it’s visually told deliberately tries to operate the same way, and on that level, it mostly succeeds.
There are no clearly defined lines between homage, influence and derivative. All movies that hearken to the classics of yore blend all of those together in varying proportions, and X is no exception. It doesn’t try to hide it either though, which lends it a considerable degree of probity.
Its throwback, almost nostalgic esthetic, soundtrack, period and setting in which the story takes place, and even X’s narrative itself, are all clearly inspired by TCM and movies like it from that era (The Last House On The Left, The Hills Have Eyes, et cetera) but without it ever becoming a remake in disguise. West clearly and strictly observes this by letting his film live on the boundary, however vague it may be, between tribute and pastiche. X feels fresh and familiar, in equal measure, as a retro slasher.
As a true horror film, however, X is less convincing in that it’s not a particularly scary or dread-filled affair. West stays away from jump scares, which in itself is hardly a downside per se. He proudly revels in his tributes to the late 70ies as he attempts to create more dynamic headroom in his visuals by keeping his ensemble scenes leisurely and lingering, thus enhancing the relative impact of the bloody violence once it comes around but it gets nowhere as bloodcurdlingly and hopelessly dread-drenched as TCM.
This is by design though, as Pearl and Howard are nothing like the enveloping menace that the Sawyer family brought onscreen. They are fragile old-timers; she’s driven by despair rather than cannibalistic impulses and Howard functions as her enabler, aware as he is that he can’t give her what she craves anymore. Special effects are mostly fine and thankfully non-CG for the most part, even though one particular scene involving a pitchfork looks a bit clumsy but this could have been done so on purpose to keep things period-correct.
In conclusion, X mostly succeeds as an entertaining, calmly moving, nostalgic and ultimately unassuming horror film, flavoured with an excellent 70ies soundtrack (highlighted by a goosebumpingly beautiful rendition of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide by Snow and Cudi) and spiced up with enough violence, in-jokes and meta-references, and some nudity, to keep a genre gourmet happy even though it’s probably not going to keep you awake at night. It’s very much a Ti West film and if you know you liked his particular brand of filmmaking in one of his earlier genre efforts, you will want to break out your preferred lager and cocktail nuts for this one too.
X is currently in theatres and on VOD and Digital platforms from A24. It will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on May 24th. And if you need something to hold you over until then, FilmTagger has a few ideas.