After a near-decade hiatus from the genre, indie horror darling Ti West returns to us with his Boogie Nights-meets-Texas Chainsaw sexed-up slasher, X. This cast is almost too hot to show on film. Martin Henderson’s head honcho Wayne struts around like the John Ford of pornography. His Americana starlet Maxine played by the incendiary Mia Goth by his side. Rounding out the trio of titillaters are Kid Cudi’s irresistibly charming Jackson and Brittany Snow’s southern belle, Bobby-Lynne. The group are headed down to rural Texas to shoot ‘The Farmers Daughters’, promised by Wayne to be the first “good dirty movie”, rivalling the likes of Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas. He’s snared in Owen Campbell’s RJ and his “church-mouse” girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) as his crew – RJ is a hilarious film student with some delusions of grandeur, fancying himself the Jean-Luc Godard of pornography, imbued by Wayne’s belief in creating a work of arousing art.
West sets his 70s horror valentine in the perfect place, with a cornucopia of horrific haunts on display; there’s a Chainsaw country house, a Crystal Lake, and even a Knowby Cabin for the actors to knock their boots together. It’s clear that Tobe Hooper’s work is a big influence on X’s atmospheric aura. With the first half recalling Hooper’s slow journey to the kills, the dread building, like a spit roast (though not the one you may have imagined), as elderly voyeurs lurk and hungry crocodiles stalk. The crew’s only worry is the heavily conservative elderly couple they rent from. Husband Howard seems a match-strike away from turning postal, whilst it’s clear that wife Pearl has an unsettling obsession around Maxine.
West has clearly done his research; X feels like a visual celebration of the horror auteurs of the 1970s and 1980s. Combining their unique styles into a brilliantly bloody blend with its sudden snap-zooms to lurking, skin-crawling camera crawls down eerily empty hallways. There’s also a gruesomely groovy vibe; you’ll find it hard to resist bobbing your head back and forth to the musical stylings of Mungo Jerry and Foghat sound-tracking the erotic delights of the porn-duction company. Likewise, Tyler Bates & Chelsea Wolfe’s sampling of ethereal moans and ecstatic groans invert those sonic pleasures and turn them into a haunting warning of the crew’s looming fate. More films need to be as freakily funky as this!
It’s indelibly clear that X has something to say about sex – it has a surprisingly sex-positive perspective. Especially with its depiction of adult performers, as Maxine, Jackson and Bobby-Lynne demonstrate their emotional intelligence in their work-life separation. Their philosophy of embracing sexual desire is a triumphant call for us all to chill out and spread a little more love around. The social commentary around the differences in generational attitudes to sexuality and desire are clearest through the disturbingly chaste elderly duo. There are few films where the killer is motivated by a lust so great that they’ll kill to get their rocks off. West flips the script on sex on film. Instead, being unable to fulfil one’s impulses and explore their sexuality is what pushes X into full-on slasher mode. There’s a clear connection through West’s symbiosis of sexual repression and murderous aggression that invites open exploration and encouragement as the key to maintaining not only one’s life but one’s sanity.
This is, of course, a slasher, but even so, some of the greatest kills in X are hysterically unexpected. While others are so bloody they paint the camera lens a deep, sexy crimson, bathing us in the warm, spurting liquid that gets everyone going in that darkened projection booth. West puts the fun thoroughly back into slashers, and it’s a hell of a good time. Sometimes, you just want to watch people die in the most horrifically creative of ways, and Ti West gives you exactly what you need and more. X is one of the best original slashers in a long time. With a brilliantly stacked cast playing into West’s tongue-in-cheek eroticism, honouring the cinematic traditions of acclaimed horror auteurs of days gone, this is one of the best horrors you’ll see all year.
X is out in cinemas now.