Ti West skillfully blends style with substance in A24’s X, delivering a riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a few subversive – and sexy – twists.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had on the horror genre. Though John Carpenter’s Halloween is often acknowledged as having kickstarted the “slasher” subgenre, it was actually Hooper’s film (and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, both released on the same day in 1974) that truly originated several tropes that would be present in these stories for years to come, from the characterization of a sadistic serial killer as a huge, hulking, faceless figure and his victims as members of the era’s “unruly” and “undisciplined” youth (who were often sexually promiscuous or dabbling in drug use). Additionally, despite its relative lack of gore (which was an intentional effort on Hooper’s part to try and earn a PG rating from the MPAA), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre brought about a previously unseen portrayal of brutality in American cinema, not just in the actions that the vicious Leatherface takes against his victims, but in the suffocating nihilism suffused throughout the entire film. It’s a movie about plain old bad people, devoid of humanity and empathy, gleefully slaughtering innocent individuals with little rhyme or reason – and that idea alone is far scarier than any gory setpiece.
Additionally, Hooper’s stunning sense of atmosphere has been studied and admired by filmmakers the world over for decades since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s release, thanks to the glorious grime of Daniel Pearl’s cinematography and the intimidating isolation of the settings chosen for the shoot. Many horror directors have tried to return to Texas with their own movies over the years in an attempt to conjure up any of the chilling mood that Hooper manifested for his own (Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Everardo Gout’s The Forever Purge, and so on and so forth), but few have been able to fully replicate his success – until now, with Ti West’s X. Now, West isn’t new to the horror scene (having directed indie hits like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers in the last decade), but in many ways, X feels like his defining work as a filmmaker so far, representing a stimulating synthesis of style and substance. His story starts – much like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – with a group of young adults (this time, filmmakers) heading out to rural Texas, but with a different plan than Sally Hardesty and her pals – to shoot a porno.
Self-proclaimed “executive producer” Wayne (Martin Henderson, of The Ring and Netflix’s Virgin River) leads the pack, bringing along his actress girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth, of Suspiria and Emma.), her co-stars Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow, of Pitch Perfect and Hairspray) and Jackson (Kid Cudi, of Bill & Ted Face the Music and Don’t Look Up), the director RJ (Owen Campbell, of The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Super Dark Times), and his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, of Scream and The Fallout). Though Wayne has rented out a secluded farmhouse on a local elderly Texan’s property ahead of time, things already get off to a rough start when the man, Howard (Stephen Ure, of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia), doesn’t recognize Wayne or remember his call initially, with a strong show of hostility. Though his enmity eventually subsides and the crew is able to start production on their porno, other problems are waiting in the wings, as Howard’s wife Pearl (Goth, in a dual role) also takes an eerie interest in the actors and their sexual activities, with her curiosity soon turning into carnage.
From the start, it’s clear that X is a filmmaking flex for West, who delivers the most dynamic direction of his career here. His shot compositions are simply off-the-charts, with an acute attention to detail and a stunning grasp on his settings, assuring that he makes full use of his surroundings in every single scene and wrings all the tension and pressure out of a beat possible. Like Hooper in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he cherishes the grit and grime of the Texas countryside with his camera (captured consummately by cinematographer Eliot Rockett), but there’s a specific “sleekness” to West’s direction that separates his style from Hooper’s, while never abandoning that “filthy” feel of the films. Energetic editing from West and David Kashevaroff also enlivens the proceedings considerably, with terrifying transitions (that often come in threes before fully shifting to the next scene) doing wonders to assure that a sense of suspense is sustained throughout. West’s (largely successful) efforts to recreate the era of the late 70s can’t be overlooked as well, as he moves beyond the incorporation of basic surface-level historically accurate elements (such as some stellar needle drops) by continuing the craft – and climate – of the time period in his work too.
It’s that last part that shocks the most – even perhaps moreso than any one of his skillfully staged and stupendously subversive jump scares – as it would be easy to dismiss X as another mere schlocky slasher with boobs and blood galore, but there’s clearly more on West’s mind, as his script comes with supplemental social commentary that bewitches the brain as your eyes are engaged by the sex and slaughter onscreen. It’s no surprise that a movie about the making of a porno has something to say about sex and sexuality in general, but it’s the ways in which West’s messages expand and evolve as the film goes on (and a torrent of twists complicate this torrid tale) that is most striking, particularly in how it ties into the actions of our antagonists. Without veering too far into spoiler territory, the true villain in X is sexual repression, both on a personal and political level – as indicated by the constantly telegraphed teachings of a conservative televangelist on a TV in the background of many scenes – and the clash between this crew and two erratic elderlies comes to symbolize a deeper generational divide between the “free lovers” of the 70s and the more religious right (and its victims) of the 30s and 40s, who despise these deviants after denying themselves of their same pleasures years prior. And, without ever obviously excusing their evil, West finds a way to make his villains ravishingly real and relatable – and all the more menacing, as a result.
Another thing that distances X from its shlockier siblings in the slasher subgenre is the congeniality and charm of its cast. Typically, in some sordid Friday the 13th or Halloween sequel, we don’t care what happens to the troublemaking teens – we just want to see some good old-fashioned Jason and Michael mayhem. However, here, thanks to both West’s empathetic writing of these sex workers and the playful and passionate performances of the ensemble, we’re genuinely gutted when someone meets their grisly demise. Some may have pompous personalities, but they’re all generally good people simply trying to make it big in this wicked world, and their interactions are idiosyncratic and inviting, as each character ascends beyond their horror archetype. Henderson is a hoot as a cocky cowboy producer with enough confidence for the whole crew, and Mescudi has the time of his life playing into porn stereotypes of the late 70s and early 80s, but it’s really the ladies who lead this show. Snow may have the looks of a blonde, big-haired bimbo, but there’s a beguiling brashness to her as well that’s instantly invigorating, while Ortega, fresh off her debut as this generation’s scream queen in this year’s Scream sequel proves that that wasn’t a one-off, taking on a more resigned role here that develops in fascinating fashion as the film goes on.
And, last but not least, Mia Goth – who got her “start” in horror films with A Cure for Wellness and Suspiria – returns to the genre that made her famous with one of the most fun and fierce horror female protagonist in years, bringing a subtle sensitivity to the part while never forgetting to personify Maxine’s more playful qualities as well and take part in some massacring when the moment demands it, which is a compliment that can be leveled at the entire film. Where some movies struggle to blend horror with hilarity, X strikes a perfect balance thanks to West’s crystal-clear command of the narrative and the film’s craft, reveling in both the comical absurdity and the coarse atrocity of it all in equal measure. In a world where studios are more content to churn out a slasher “legacyquel” than produce a new horror property, movies like X are more essential than ever, as this is the type of thrilling creativity (taking an existing formula and making it new again) that the genre and the industry as a whole needs to survive. And, also, it’s just a fun fuckin’ film.
X will be released in US theaters on March 18, 2022.
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