Writer-Director Ti West’s new film, X – his first in six years, and first horror feature in almost a decade – sees an amateur adult film crew rent an old family guest house in Texas for their new shoot. When the land’s owners, living adjacent, learn the truth of their activities, they don’t react well, and murderous tendencies come to the surface.
The opening shot plays like a manifesto of sorts, setting up the heavily Texas Chainsaw-inspired aesthetic and tricking us into thinking this is shot in 4:3 aspect ratio, before opening out and revealing that we’ve been looking at the setting through a darkened doorway, an early hint at the voyeurism that will be a key element of X.
In my review of The Scary of Sixty First, I mentioned that it was possibly the best example of an “authentic” exploitation film in a number of years – keyword being “was”. Continuing in the trend of his stellar 2009 film, The House of the Devil, West has blown that example out of the water. This has been heralded as what Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel should have been and, while this comparison holds water – the daylight photography of the Texas farmhouse, the night-time photography of characters running through the woods and the old age makeup design owe a debt with huge interest to the 1974 film – it’s also a bit reductive.
This is far and away its own movie and will remind anyone who may have forgotten just what West can do. The building of tension is tooth-grinding: an early shot featuring Mia Goth swimming in a lake, unaware that she is being stalked by a huge alligator (perhaps another tribute to Tobe Hooper’s work) is a masterclass in directing suspense. As the film goes on, the director continues to show his hand. He uses contemporary horror tropes to his advantage, setting up an easy fright gag and then drawing us on, well beyond where we expect the scare to strike, mounting dread and tension with every passing second.
The film’s meta jokes are also perfectly done. Meta-horror has become quite stale over the years, but if that may put you off watching X, hear me out! Meta commentary is not a key element of the film, just one facet of its surprisingly sly sense of humour. Focusing on a porno film crew adds an extra layer of humour to the movie, and the “director” RJ’s constant repetition of his desire to make something more than smut, something arty, independent and “avant-garde,” feels like a massive middle finger up to filmmakers with convoluted aspirations to “elevated horror”. Ti West has no illusions about this beautiful, pure, grindhouse-love-letter slasher picture. The fact that this is distributed by A24 makes this even funnier, if more than slightly ironic.
Where X comes the closest to losing its steam is in the second half, where its postmodernism is slightly left to the wayside, as it adopts a more traditional slasher structure. Its style, characters and politics keep it fresh, however.
Without getting into spoilers: where the average slasher film will look at the act of sex, X looks more at sexuality itself. Its characters are sexually free; discuss sexual politics in depth and, although to an extent it seems like the characters are being punished for this, it feels only as if they are being punished by the antagonists, and not by the film. The killers’ motivations tie into this too in ways that are both humorous and disturbing in equal measure, and the whole film gives a two-fingered salute to dying, puritanically conservative social and sexual politics.
I mentioned voyeurism. This is a key element of every iconic slasher film, right back to the days of proto-slashers Peeping Tom and Psycho, but here it is more than simple peepholes or Michael Myers’ POV tracking shots: It’s intrinsic to the film’s themes. From literal voyeurism, the pornographic film being shot hints at someone watching the characters from a distance, which linger a little bit longer than you’re comfortably used to, all further adding to X’s upturning of slasher tropes.
These trope subversions, combined with the aforementioned cinematography and aesthetic, the fantastic editing which manages to emphasise and add effect to every scare, build off tension and gore-gag. Those gags and use brilliant practical special effects (highlights include another gator scene and a tribute to one of the most iconic shots from Lucio Fulci’s career, you know the one) mean that X never loses its edge, grip or entertainment value, and doesn’t feel a minute of its 106 minute runtime.
All in all, it’s nice to have Ti West back in the horror film game, showing that House of the Devil wasn’t just a fluke, and crafting a film that is equal parts throwback to a long-gone era in the genre, yet authentic, fresh, and distinctly stamped. Whatever aspects of X appeal to you, I highly implore you to check it out, because everything here works, and it works wonderfully.