Ti West’s 70s horror throwback X, about a group of young pornographers carved up by a mad slasher, is as much a nod to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 landmark The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it is a movie that exists on its own terms. That it’s been distributed by indie arthouse outfit A24 gives you a sense of its pedigreed sheen, artfully propping up joyous sleaze with superb technical precision.
Picture opens in 1979 Houston and the opener feels damned close to Hooper’s classic as we meet a group of very young adult filmmakers and actors out to ape Debbie Does Dallas, en route to rented farmhouse for a quickie shoot of a hot skin flick titled The Farmer’s Daughters. It’s one of those sweltering Texas afternoons and like its predecessor, a group of sexy young kids pile into a van, stop at a desolate highway gas station and end up at a farmhouse, naturally, with a back yard windmill (West is nothing if not a completist).
The clan includes ingenue and coke fiend Maxine (Mia Goth), desperate for stardom and the girlfriend of producer Wayne (Martin Henderson); curvaceous, charismatic bombshell Bobby-Lynne (a terrific Brittany Snow); cinematographer RJ (Owen Campbell), determined to elevate the “dirty movie” to an art form; RJ’s naive and ripe to be corrupted girlfriend and sound recordist Lorraine (Jenny Ortega); and former Vietnam vet “born for this work” Jackson (Scott Mescudi). Welcomely, each of these characters is appropriately scaled for the time period and refreshingly free of the too hip and off-putting contemporary young people in today’s horror films. You can believe this ensemble in both the period and in their fraternity; they effectively capture a laid-back irreverence and sexual liberation of a long gone era, perhaps even more effectively than Licorice Pizza’s pair of celebrated young 70s antiheroes.
From miles away the audience can see the telltale signs that they should turn back, yet despite a bloody roadside accident and uneasy early exchange with the farmhouse’s owner, Howard (Stephen Ure), they plunge ahead anyway. Howard also has a love-starved, seemingly housebound and aged wife, Pearl (also played by Goth, who disappears under make-up and prosthetics). The overconfident group are undeterred, barreling onto the property in a van named “Plowing Service,” defiantly ready for their close-ups. So confident are they that Maxine even plunges nude into a muddy pond, without a thought to the massive gator lurking close by (a simple overhead shot ranks may be the film’s scariest moment).
The first hour of X is peek-a-boo ribald and quietly simmering, West (The House of the Devil) making effective use of shifting aspect ratios and film grain in the shooting of the film’s sex opus, all while keeping us on the hook about just how and when a killer will materialize. As a slasher film, the requisite horniness, drugs and sex are turned up to 11, which tells us—if we know anything about transgressive punishments across the genre for immoral behavior—that the entire cast is doomed. Yet West eschews judgment in favor of appealing empathy—these are not dumb teenagers running around the woods alone, but rather, independent and free-thinking progressives with interesting world views, ruminating on individual expression and personal freedoms.
In these and a few other regards, X isn’t exactly a mere routine slasher film, its first victim dispatched no earlier than 59 minutes into its 104-minute running time. And in a film that is largely homage, West has devised an original, psychosexual twist; the less you know the better, but it achieves a near poignant perversity in its killer’s MO by making clever use of a dichotomy between an older and younger character: one on the verge of big dreams, declaring “I’m going to be a star!,” the other haunted by those lost, fueling the rage and carnage in the film’s second half.
There are extreme gore effects in X—buckets of blood, crushed skulls, impalings and shootings in lurid close-up, West ultimately abandoning Hooper’s visceral and often psychological Chainsaw terror (that picture was refreshingly free of actual onscreen dismemberment) in favor of an orgy of viscera. He also hasn’t quite calibrated suspense or mystery—there’s little of John Carpenter’s Halloween-styled terror in X, which begins with nods to Hooper’s masterwork but ultimately descends into the gore of the early 80s slashers.
X never steps wrong on the technical front, the picture lovingly awash in period 35mm grain, atmospheric in its rural, sweltering Texas environs and welcomely acted without a trace of 2022’s meta-hipness which has infested too many contemporary horror films. The picture is impressively unsettling. The soundtrack, as expected, includes many period chestnuts from Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper to a lovely acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, the latter giving Snow a chance to show off her fine vocal chops as she did in the Pitch Perfect series. Here the actress, with her peroxide blonde, come-hither sexiness and intelligent self-direction in every scene, is the film’s MVP.
Well-acted and shot, respectfully reverent and, at times, creepy in its slow-burn themes of sex, death and retribution, X is a nod to the origins of the modern horror film, nostalgic without ever winking from the present.
If only there was less slaughter and more scares.