X Review: A raunchy 70s style slasher with stellar storytelling and stylistic horror
While indie film powerhouse A24 has been a pivotal force in the horror genre with films like Hereditary, The Witch, and Midsommar, they haven’t always been able to connect with wider audiences because of their focus on artsy, “elevated” horror. That all changes with the latest film from V/H/S alum Ti West, X, as it’s a good, old-fashioned slasher with some engaging and surprisingly emotional storytelling.
The film follows an adult film crew in 1979 Texas as they head to a secluded farmhouse owned by a reclusive older couple to film their latest raunchy porno until they find that the old couple has plans of their own for them. West makes X a visually intriguing homage to 70s horror with how he establishes the film’s Texas setting. Just from the first few shots, you can feel this sweltering heat that washes over the incredibly bright and hot cinematography Eliot Rockett as the group travels through a very open and beautiful farm landscape. It’s something that’s instantly reminiscent of iconic 70s slasher films like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, and the grindhouse elements of those films equally come out in some of the grimy horrors the group comes across, including the old couple.
The nods to 70s horror only continue as X introduces its characters who end up being more than meets the eye. In their initial introductions, this main cast harnesses some of the best elements of slashers. The tropey personalities of the characters are established and played up perfectly by the cast. Wayne (Martin Henderson) has the perfect amount of hilarious sleaziness anyone would expect from a porn producer. RJ (Owen Campbell) is an artistic film geek who is determined to make a “good dirty movie,” so much so that he’s dragged his quiet girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) along as part of the crew. As for the rest of the group, there’s a boiling sexual tension and determination for stardom mainly from Wayne’s girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth) that drives the group and eventually boils over.
Once they arrive at the house, as expected, their inhibitions completely drop and it’s not too long until the camera starts rolling and there’s some real action. West takes some real love and care in capturing his world of pornography that’s wild and got a nice goofy feel to it. Its “story” of a traveler heading onto a farm and sleeping with the farmer’s promiscuous daughters is perfectly fitting for a porn scenario and it’s actually funny how RJ tries to make it elevated and artsy through his filmmaking. The real art comes from West’s filmmaking though as it gives the porn sequences an enjoyably over the top feel that fits both porn and slashers well and frames it in that 70s film style to make it stand out.
Even through the early parts of the film, West crafts some excellently suspenseful sequences that are reminiscent of the most iconic scenes of slashers. From a skinny-dipping session taking a terrifying turn when an alligator secretly enters the picture to the couple silently stalking the group, there are some good horror vibes mixed in between the ecstasy. West’s filmmaking is engaging and suspenseful throughout making for some strong sequences that leave you feeling tense and offer breathtaking jolts of terror. These initial impressions are broken down eventually though to make X and its characters completely subvert your expectations.
X never loses its identity as a slasher but manages to flesh out its characters in ways that leave a surprising impact. There’s a great moment where the group just sits down to talk about what porn means to them and it really allows a more humanistic side to show. These people aren’t crude or bad, despite what some might say, just because they have sex, and there is this deeply caring and comforting side to them that’s surprisingly genuine. West’s direction and the performances really make you care more about these characters than most slashers would, and it makes later decisions they make not simply be seen as stupid, but rather goodhearted choices that just tragically work against them.
It’s even better how the same can be said for the film’s suspicious elderly couple, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (also played by Goth). On the surface, it’s easy to write them off as a gross-looking, crazy old couple who’s going to pick off this group one by one because of some crazed meltdown. They’re not that simple though as West gives them a good amount of the spotlight to make their story more personal and, oddly enough, make you care and understand their lives, especially Pearl. Pearl’s story touches on the tragic reality of becoming old that many people fear, the idea of no longer being able to do the things you once were able to do. It’s a great horror motivation that’s given some emotional weight as Pearl and Howard are given a lot of focus to let their emotions boil over and start the film’s finale killing spree.
West gives new meaning to the phrase “sex kills” with X and its hilarious and horrifying finale is something audiences will absolutely adore. All the great elements of suspense and charming sexual comedy displayed throughout the film remain and are elevated as some wildly gory kills occur and are backed by the excellent music from Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe. Every moment offers some scary satisfaction in the form of some great suspense-building and unpredictability from West’s direction and there are some moments that will shock the hell out of audiences. It delivers gut-busting laughter and sheer disgust that audiences will never forget. There are plenty of great surprises with the characters and connections that form, and West excellently plants the seeds for this world and its characters to be further explored, including in a secret post-credit trailer for a prequel West has already shot.
X is not only a great homage to 70s horror, but it’s game changing for the kind of films that A24 can offer as it presents a great blend of horror and comedy that audiences will love and is backed by West’s incredible vision for storytelling and filmmaking. X is easily the best horror movie of the year, possibly even one of the best films in general, and is a true original every should check out.