Gritty, gory, and disturbing, the new film X from auteur director Ti West (The Sacrament, The House of the Devil) is a deliciously evil and deeply perverse journey into the hellish backwoods of Texas. Feeling like a sinister mix of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Boogie Nights, X carves out a modern slasher niche while easily capturing the grungy terror of the 70s horror aesthetic. An injection of dark humor recalls West’s earlier work on Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever, an unfairly maligned gorefest sequel. Utilizing three major horror actresses, any of whom could end up as the final girl due to strong characterization, makes X far less predictable than one would expect. Get ready to slurp down a tall glass of lemonade, and immerse yourself in the grimy atmosphere of X.
Roll the cameras back to Houston, Texas, in 1979—a group of budding filmmakers head deep into the country to shoot porno, The Farmer’s Daughter. X maintains an ominous vibe from early on, as the group drive by an exploded cow hit by a truck on their way to a mysterious farmhouse, and the tires roll over its bloody guts. Established by films such as Wrong Turn and, of course, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the group also hit up a rundown gas station that helps establish the middle-of-nowhere locale. Before even arriving at its primary setting, we get a chance to know each of member of the group.
Slow-burn horror is kind of Ti West’s bread and butter, and X is no exception, taking its sweet time by building up a strong roster of characters. There’s Maxine (Mia Goth, Suspiria, A Cure for Wellness), an aspiring actress with “that X factor” who longs for the whole world to know her name; Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow, Prom Night, Would You Rather), lead porn actress whose deepest American dream is simply to “tan these titties” and sell her metaphorical goods; Jackson (singer Kid Cudi in his horror-genre debut), a marine who once served two tours in Vietnam, and is now making effective use of his massive tool; Wayne (Martin Henderson, The Ring, The Strangers: Prey At Night), Bayou Burlesque strip club owner and partial “idea” man; quiet “churchmouse” equipment girl Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, Babysitter: Killer Queen, 2022’s Scream); and RJ (Owen Campbell, Super Dark Times, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To), the project’s hopeful director who wants to add class and production value to an adult film. As previously mentioned, it’s a bit tough to tell which of this cast will be body count fodder or capable survivor, and that is part of the fun.
When the group arrives at their final destination, their welcome isn’t quite as warm as one would hope—Howard (Stephen Ure, Deathgasm, The Lord of the Rings) jams a shotgun in Wayne’s face as he shows up to the doorstep. The situation is diffused when Wayne insists that he has booked the small guest house for their lodgings for a whole $30, and he even throws in some extra cash for good measure. Still, Howard does not seem impressed by any of them. He warns them to have discretion, especially since his aging wife, Pearl, is sensitive and not to be trifled with. The first shot of Pearl peaking down from an upstairs window evokes Hitchcock’s Psycho with the chilling image of Mother keeping watch. Unbeknownst to Howard, the friends are filming a graphic porno that would send the elderly Pearl clutching her Bible-touting pearls even if the woman wasn’t already seriously ill. The makeup effects for Pearl and Howard make them two particularly nasty individuals to look at, and West’s razor-sharp scripting transforms them into three-dimensional baddies with flavor.
X forgoes disappointment by embracing both the nasty kills that slasher fans will crave, as well as the outrageous camp and excess of juicy sex scenes (one of which will forever haunt my darkest nightmares). Overt male nudity in addition to female nudity remains a pleasant surprise in an attempt to balance the scales of gender equality. It’s easy to justify the lack of clothing when the players are rightfully filming a porno. On the topic of deaths, the first kill leaves a visceral and violent imprint, being well worth the wait. The soundtrack amps up the tension, and plenty of foreshadowing turns the biggest moments into crowd-pleasing cohesion. Plenty of surprises remain that have not been spoiled by the advertising, and no doubt several kills will rank among my favorites in 2022.
Dissecting the title of X leads the viewer to draw a couple of possibilities, either of which could be correct. X could refer to the X-rating that was granted to pornos of the time period the film is depicting, or it could refer to Maxine’s so-called X-factor in containing that something extra. It seems an alternate title, Ultra Horny Old Lady Kills!, was already taken. As in the best of the slasher genre, the final act gets off-the-wall bonkers in the most unexpected of ways. One death scene was so shocking that the entire audience let out a collective gasp of surprise. Just after its SXSW debut, it was announced that a prequel has already been filmed, and a sequel is in the scripting stage, presenting an exciting opportunity for Ti West to helm his own trilogy. For anyone afraid that the typical subgenre formula means that slashers are dead, X definitely proves that sex and violence is “all disco.”
X screened its pornographic content at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, and is now tormenting audiences in theaters everywhere.
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