FILM

Slasher Porn: Ti West’s ‘X’ Serves Horror With A Resonant Retro Twist

For a horror movie about a bunch of weirdos making porn in a barn, 'X' is not only a gut-punch, but a unique commentary on the craft of filmmaking

by

Ti West’s X sees the auteur return with his grisliest and most confident picture yet. Having worked in television for the past six years, it’s great to have him back, reminding us that the slasher genre can be more than gruesome kills and snarky millennial victims who deserve their comeuppance (as in the latest Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot). For West, real horror exists in those quiet moments between the killings, when the undercurrent of dread bubbles to the surface. As we’ve seen in his past movies, like House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, the filmmaker has a knack for creating absorbing characters and personalities; they’re not just pieces of meat thrown on a conveyor belt. An explosive homage to 70’s exploitation cinema, this movie is brutal, nail-biting, and hilarious, but it retains a unique perspective on mortality that’ll stay with you long after the last drop of blood is spilled.

It’s 1979, Texas, and a group of nascent filmmakers in Houston travel across the state in a van to make their first adult film. Their leader and self-proclaimed “executive producer,” Wayne (Martin Henderson), rented an abandoned farmhouse in the backwoods to shoot the masterpiece, The Farmer’s Daughter. At 42, Wayne is determined to reap the benefits of making a gem that could give Debbie Does Dallas a run for its money. As the van glides over a sun-bleached highway with a classic rock soundtrack swelling to a crescendo, we get acquainted with this band of starry-eyed miscreants.

Wayne cheerleads his troops like a coked-up general, while his diffident girlfriend, Maxine (Mia Goth), stares out the window, constantly convincing herself she deserves to be famous. Meanwhile, stripper Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and her “sometimes” boyfriend, Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), a bad-ass marine who served in Vietnam, are set to star. Meanwhile, RJ (Owen Campbell), a nerdy cinephile who Wayne recruited from the local film school, acts like he’s about to direct a Bergman film, while his deceptively docile girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), knows better.

Once they arrive at a dilapidated farmhouse and meet the property’s owner, Howard (Stephen Ure), an elderly curmudgeon with spotted skin and a shotgun, things get weird… fast. A veteran of The Great War, Howard seems resigned to a slow death with his wife, Pearl, who’s equally creepy and stripped of her youth with withered skin and a balding pate. Pearl is a ghostly presence who stares out of the window and watches her young visitors with an insatiable intrigue. Then she takes a more vested interest.

For a horror movie about a bunch of weirdos making porn in a barn, is not only a gut-punch, but a unique commentary on the craft of filmmaking, the innate power of sexuality versus religious morality, and our collective fear of aging. West communicates these ideas through his signature slow burn tone, playful filmmaking (split screens, mosaics) and grounded, fundamental storytelling. Slasher films have been begging for this kind of intricate and subtle craftsmanship for a long time. It’s finally come to fruition.

The irony is that West isn’t doing anything particularly original or novel here; he’s simply bringing the genre back to its roots, when character and story took precedence over shock value. In this regard, he’s way ahead of his contemporaries who seem more inspired by the overly-ironic hubris of Scream instead of the kinetic violence and subversion of something like The Hills Have Eyes. From the washed-out, granular cinematography, moody score, detailed production design, and patient approach to terror, West is obviously paying homage to great 70’s auteurs like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven. He’s definitely not shy about utilizing their aesthetic, but it doesn’t really matter since his voice is uniquely his.

X isn’t without a few missteps. At times, the grandiose ideas don’t align with the narrative as smoothly as they did in his other films. There are a few awkward “What is he trying to say?” moments. Still, these are minor complaints in a movie this ambitious. West might not hit all his targets, but at least he’s taking an alternate route instead of following the same old, torn roadmap.

Whether you buy the premise or not, this is still one of the best horror films that’s been made in a long time. The photography, editing, and overall vibe harken to “nostalgia” movies like Boogie Nights and Dazed and Confused. The acting is also topnotch, particularly Mia Goth who is equal parts vulnerable and sensual. In fact, everyone plays their parts with a natural ease and dexterity you don’t see in “slashers” too often. There are also alligators, an outlandish sequence with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult, blood-splattering, entrails, unapologetic sexuality, and some hilarious moments which are born from the story, not a director’s need to be noticed. X is worth the ride into hell and definitely a visit to see on the big screen at your local theater.

Highlights