Walking into X you might think that you’re getting another Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired slasher that longs to relive the heydays of that game-changing 1974 horror. And director Ti West doesn’t hide how much Tobe Hooper’s iconic proto-slasher shaped his 1979-set film. But there’s far more hiding under the wrinkled, sun baked skin of X. In fact, this delightfully dark and surprisingly complex flick feels unbelievably fresh. Its influences inspire innovation rather than shackling X to the other derivative tropes we’ve come to expect from ’70s throwback horror.
West’s cast collaborates with him on his exploitation exploration and makes X feel heftier than your average slasher. The subtly brilliant Martin Henderson’s Wayne leads our ragtag group of wannabe filmmakers. He’s our 40-something patriarch who sees the outsider success of recent pornos like Debbie Does Dallas as a way to escape the doldrums of everyday life. Encouraging him is his young girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), who dreams of a life beyond that of a stripper. Goth is a standout, bringing that x-factor that everyone claims to see in Maxine to the forefront of every scene. Along for the ride is Maxine’s fellow stripper Bobby-Lynne (a career best Brittany Snow), her on-off boyfriend Jackson (a career high for Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), aspiring filmmaker RJ (a hilarious Owen Campbell), and his boom mic-operating girlfriend Lorraine ( the ever delightful Jenna Ortega).
Together, the crew is off to rural Texas to film The Farmer’s Daughters. Unfortunately, Wayne’s choice of homestead for the shoot happens to be home to a very unsettling older couple. This group isn’t going to let something as simple as creepy old people mess up their plans, though, and so they begin to shoot their movie. Snow and Mescudi bring a heart and humor to these scenes that evoke Boogie Nights. West flits between shooting the porn and showing us the porn as it looks on screen to hilarious and saucy effect. It’s clear this is a film about the love of filmmaking as much as it’s about sexually enlightened folks getting killed with pitchforks.
This is no simple morality play, however. West paints a far more empathetic and complicated picture of our antagonists. As funny and radical as our pornographers are, there’s something tragic and deeper to unpack when it comes to Pearl and Howard, the owners of the land. To dig too far into their roles and story is to spoil some of the film’s best moments, so I’ll not say much more other than I cannot wait for West’s recently teased Pearl-centered X prequel. Saying that, there are a couple of slasher tropes that don’t get the subversive treatment the movie regularly delivers on, but that barely hold this rip-roaring horror back.
The director brings a surprising amount of restraint to his terrifying tale. This is slow burn horror to the max until the moment it decidedly isn’t. That beautifully bloody moment features a kill that’s so prolonged and brutal that both this reviewer—and director Ti West, according to a Q&A that followed the screening—were shocked that the film managed to get an R-rating and not the X-rating that it takes its name from. West has always been great at delivering inventive kills. That said, along with co-editor David Kashevaroff, West delivers some unforgettable deaths here utilizing startlingly technical edits and smash cuts that had the New Beverly crowd gasping. It’s that attention to detail both technically and narratively that makes X sing.
This is a movie that delights in practical effects, quiet character moments, and bombastic kills. It has sterling turns from every cast member, including a likely star-making one for Goth. There’s so much more to dig into here that would ruin the secrets at the heart of the film. But let me just say it’s refreshing to watch a slasher movie that loves women as much as it loves killing them. So yes, if you feel comfortable then rush out to see X on the biggest screen possible. This is West’s best film yet, and if there’s any justice in the cinematic world it’ll also be his biggest hit.
Featured Image: A24