Throwback horror movies are among the trickiest types of films to pull off. Many have attempted to pay tribute to their favorite genre features in one way or another, but sticking the landing isn’t always an easy prospect. Writer/director Ti West has stepped up to the plate with a new offering to in that canon, with his ‘70s-esque slasher X taking inspiration from classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, rather than just playing the hits of the genre he clearly loves, West has taken the opportunity to turn in a movie that crosses a multitude of boundaries with its story.
The basic pitch for X is familiar, as a pack of hungry adult performers (Mia Goth, Brittany Snow, and Scott Mescudi), their enterprising manager (Martin Henderson), and a crack team of crew members (Jenna Ortega and Owen Campbell) set out to make the best damned porno the world has ever seen. Booking a desolate farm deep in the heart of Texas, our intrepid protagonists start out doing what they intended, while trying not to raise the suspicions of their gracious but clueless hosts. Unbeknownst to them, danger is lurking rather closely, and it’s not just the local alligators they have to worry about.
X is an expert slow burn that earns its eventual bloodletting.
For a movie that runs at 105 minutes, X takes its time getting to the nastier bits you’d expect from a horror slasher of this type. In this case, that is an absolute compliment to the movie that Ti West has put together, as there are quite a few layers to the story being told. Throwing the audience into the action with a quick flash forward to the traditional scene of the authorities showing up to the scene of the crime, X lays down some expectations of what’s to come.
This proves to be a perfect tease because once everything is set into motion, we get to follow X’s main cast for quite a bit before any sort of killing takes place. Earning the eventual bloodletting it eventually delivers, the resulting slow burn sets up the stakes for each character we follow throughout the single day of terror. This leaves plenty of room for bad omens of things to come, and some clever setup of the future perils that everyone will come to face.
However, in Ti West’s methodical pacing of X he’s also winding up for several different pitches that he later lets fly. By taking his time to get to “the good stuff,” West turns the entire movie into “the best stuff,” as the stakes that are set in motion pay off one after the other. When horror fans get to the blood and guts of X, they’ll be even happier that they got to know the score before playing ball, as the finished package is all the more satisfying because of that strategy.
Underneath the sexy, bloody exterior of this horror film lies some unexpected depths.
Most would probably think that Grindhouse is the closest spiritual cousin to what type of movie X is supposed to be. The marketing plays to that idea a bit, as the elevator pitch version almost sounds like a fun, sleazy time that mows down its characters in the name of pure thrills. That couldn’t be further from the truth, though, as those stakes that are set up in the slow burning portion of X tap some hidden depths.
All of our main characters bring some baggage to this artistic adult film they’re trying to make. Maxine (Mia Goth) wants to be the best damned porn star she can be, as she sees it as a true calling. Jackson (Scott Mescudi) seems like he’s in the business not only because it’s fun, but also because he wants to avoid the pain of serving in Vietnam. By the time we get to a scene of exposition where our ragtag filmmakers really talk out the nature of their business, we’ve seen everyone bond to the closest point possible... which only makes the ensuing bloodbath all the more painful to watch, as we’ve gotten to really like these people.
Even the subject of X’s adult filmmaking is handled without the good natured sleaze you might be ready to tolerate. In fact, the story on the whole is very sex positive, with the only hang-ups coming from a subplot involving the relationship between the two crew members. The strongest thread that ties both halves of X together is the theme of youth and enjoying your life to the fullest. As things get really dark, and the motive for these killings becomes clearer, our story gives way to possibly the most unexpected piece of the puzzle: a pitch black romance that allows the audience a window of empathy that slashers of this type normally wouldn’t provide.
From start to finish, X is a ride that eventually speeds into a frenzied finale that lands on a dizzying high.
If X were any differently paced, you might see the usual problem of two movies in conflict with one another. It’s a tricky balancing act that Ti West, his cast, and his crew have pulled off with this movie – but the eventual result is a dizzying high that doesn’t quit until the credits roll. (As if that wasn’t enough, thanks to an expertly placed Robert Palmer track, the adrenaline continues to pump into those credits.) Both period appropriate and just a matter of good taste, every inch of X is built for pleasure, and there are many different forms this movie deploys to prove it.
The joy of X comes from the unexpected, which fits so wonderfully into the stuff you’d definitely expect from the sexy tin this film is packaged in. What’s better is as the film unfolds, there are a couple of threads that may feel extraneous at first. All questions are answered, however, and by time the killing’s done, those threads are woven into a beautiful tapestry that only solidifies the movie’s overall point.
With a wicked sense of humor, a lust for sex and blood, and its heart on its sleeve, X is Ti West’s monstrous return to feature filmmaking. Let’s hope he doesn’t take too long to get back into the game after this latest joy, but if he does, we can at least count on him returning strong when he reemerges. Like any good horror movie worth its kill count, you’re going to want to see this one in a theater full of fans, provided you feel safe enough to do so.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.
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