X is a gnarly throwback horror that sheds the genre’s present obsession with being about something and just slings blood and jokes for the duration of its runtime.
After a couple of ambitious misfires, filmmaker Ti West returns to the sort of simplicity (and idiosyncrasy) that marked his first few features with X, a deliriously fun joy-buzzer horror movie that, quite simply, doesn’t make a single false step. It’s Texas in 1979, and a group of… let’s call them entrepreneurs, is heading out to the sticks to shoot a porno flick for the emerging home video market. Wayne (Martin Henderson) is the producer, with fiancée Maxine (Mia Goth) as the star. Along with two other actors (Brittany Snow and Kid Cudi) and a couple of film students (Owen Campbell and Jenna Ortega), they decamp to a remote boarding house on the property of a very crusty old man (Stephen Are) to begin production on The Farmers Daughters. Ironically, the old codger admonishes them to be “respectful” and stay away from his equally elderly wife Pearl. Of course, it isn’t long before everyone becomes violently entangled.
Typical of West’s films, X unfolds deliberately and more than a little slowly. West takes as much pleasure in sketching his characters as he does in slicing them up, and there’s also a lot of rural Texas texture slathered on. With a TV preacher as constant background noise, X builds its eerie foundation on a culture of prudishness and sex negativity, obviously contrasted with our characters’ exhibitionism and pragmatism about sex and sex work. This awareness of sexual desire, shot through with voyeurism and shame and self-image, is central to the narrative but never belabored thematically. It’s more of an organizing principle than anything else.
Once the bloodletting starts, though, it is fierce and, characteristically for West, very funny and downright squirm-inducing. West’s films, especially his early one-two punch of instant classics House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, have always had a streak of humor that is simultaneously dry and sophomoric. Here the relentless brutality is punctuated by absurd gags, like the silhouette of a guy’s tremendous cock or, in an incredible, hilarious shock moment, when an eye-gouging is interrupted by an entire scene happening elsewhere before cutting back to the kill. All along the way, X finds room for happy little formal nods at classics like Texas Chain Saw or Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or, the film’s closest cousin, Tobe Hooper’s terrific Eaten Alive (you’ll know the reference when you see it). It also features the sex scene of the year, at once revolting, tender, and revealing of character.
Best of all, X doesn’t make any pretense of being about anything. With the horror genre clogged of late with safe spaces, ruminations on grief, lugubrious metaphors for trauma, and/or lectures about gender and race dynamics, it’s a complete breath of fresh air to see a real movie, one that puts all its energy and creativity into just doing the thing: putting a bunch of kids out in the middle of nowhere and having some fucked-up shit happen to them. More horror like this, please.