X (2022)

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X (2022)
Directed by Ti West

As the two guilty secrets of genre cinema, horror and pornography make for natural bedfellows – hence the lazy dismissal ‘torture porn’. So it makes sense Ti West’s latest combines the two: X is a gritty grindhouse about some young wannabe moviemakers in the late 70s hiring out part of a creepy old farm to shoot a skin flick: The Farmer’s Daughters. Hey, with home video just starting up, maybe it’ll be huge! After an awkward meet and greet with the owners, during which executive producer Wayne gets held at gunpoint, they settle into the ramshackle guesthouse to shoot in secret. Better to beg for forgiveness than ask permission, right? Besides, they have no other prospects and want to do it before they’re “too old to fuck”. On that topic, the sexually frustrated and conservative Christian couple, who run the property, take to them with a weird mix of lust and hate. So, with all this sex and drugs, do we expect anyone to come out alive? An introduction, that takes place afterwards, tells us it’ll be a bloodbath.

Like his contemporary Adam Wingard, West’s films have been consistently good. Still, as a storyteller, I feel like his films have always fallen short of greatness. Where Wingard tends to sacrifice character for a punky style, West has never had this problem – giving us layered pieces with relatable leads. His films have always been visually impressive, too, with some arresting sequences, an enjoyably dirty aesthetic and a slow-burning sense of unease that shows remarkable restraint. Yet, for me, the destination has never done justice to the time spent getting there, with some at times pedestrian payoffs. The Innkeepers was especially bad for this, giving some enjoyable character moments and worldbuilding before an unremarkable slice of supernatural horror in the third act. Fortunately, I think this may be his best-paced film yet: from an early stage, the chess pieces are being lined up, and when everybody seems to be having fun, there’s always something lingering on the periphery. It’s also, by far, his most horrific.

The 70s setting is done dead well, with authentic clothes, locations, dialogue and (for the most part) synth-funk score. West clearly loves cinema from this era, and he does an admirable job in doing something that’s pastiche without being too derivative. The fondness is obvious from the first frame – which has fun with aspect ratio Admittedly the illusion is shattered by a (really nice) rendition of a song I can only imagine it costs a bit to include, along with a few modern edits and arty A24 style scenes. But his commitment to the golden age of slashers is admirable. That being said, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to which he pays homage in both shot composition and style, X doesn’t quite fit the template. Some staples are missing: the killers don’t wear masks, the goodies go to them, and much of the threat comes from firearms. Still, this has all the suspense and gore you’d reasonably expect. The few kills are perhaps too blunt to be fun, but West gives them a visceral impact where the violence comes in punchy bursts. Not all are especially creative, but they mostly work. The stalking scenes are also excellent, including one involving an alligator. And though we generally know where Howard and Pearl are most of the time, we feel they can come out of anywhere to kill the hot, young folk. Which would be unfortuate.

Yes, another reason this is West’s best film horror to date is that it’s also his most likeable cast of characters. Wayne has the cowboy bravado of his namesake, doing dodgy deals and asking people to feel how “hard” he is. The tensions between him and director RJ, who has pretensions of making fine art, are enjoyable (the way they resolve this is an inspiring ethos for genre films in general). Both Boddy-Lynn and Jackson are empowered characters taking ownership of their sexuality. Maxine is the closest we have to a lead – somewhat naïve but also taking control after a repressive upbringing. Then there’s uncomfortable “church mouse” Lorraine (played by former Disney kid Jenna Ortega) who can’t decide what side of the camera she wants to be on. All are distinct and fleshed out enough that you don’t want any to die, and it’s rewarding to just hang out with them. Heck, amongst the thrills, kills, and blood spills, the best sequence sees them just kicking back to shoot the shit about the ethics of having sex for money. No, West isn’t especially interested in making a piece that deals with sociosexual politics and exploitation (at least not that kind). But then, nor is he interested in defining his characters as mere bodies. While a horror film about making a porno could easily have traded in characterisation for a gleefully trashy mix of tits, swearing, and money shots, there’s an unexpected innocence. Yeah, we get all of those, but always in a way that seems earned. The film’s heart comes from a bunch of young people setting out to achieve their dreams and make a movie Guerrilla style. Sure, you’d trust Wayne as far as you can throw him. But the ‘it’s us against the world’ aspect is immediately relatable, as is the celebration of youth. And, frankly, you want to see them finish their ill-fated project.

Unfortunately, the villains’ motives didn’t quite work for me. Howard and Pearl are given a context, and we can almost understand why they’re so miffed by their young guests. Yet I wasn’t convinced by their transition from grumpy hosts into killers – a turn that requires a psychological jump that I didn’t think was there. But then, as one of the film’s themes goes, maybe I need to judge less by appearance. Regardless, they’re both decent baddies, and despite being in their senior years, both are suitably menacing. Also oddly sympathetic: while West knows how to make us uncomfortable with their physical intimacy, there’s an unconventional tenderness to their relationship. I didn’t believe they’d kill, but I could buy they would for each other. As with the rest of the film, and I’m beginning to think Ti West as a whole, there’s a sweetness once you get below the grimy surface. Oh, yes, and the *tee-hee* climax is excellent. On that, if you’ve heard about a post-credit sequence online, it doesn’t seem to be added for the UK cut.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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About david.s.smith 455 Articles
Scottish horror fan who is simultaneously elitist and hates genre snobbery. Follow me on @horrorinatweet

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