It’s been six years since Ti West released a film, a gap that can be the death of a small but crucial horror director, but he’s at last returned to the stage with a gonzo-slasher film that pushes a lot of limits and pays off in big ways. Those that remember his breakout film, The House of the Devil, will remember that he’s got a talent for slow-burn fever dreams that devolve into nightmares with so ease. I’m not at all surprised that he’s come back to horror, but this is not at all what I was expecting.
And why would I expect it? A slasher film set in 1979 Texas that follows the ambitions of a group of pornographic filmmakers as they try to capitalize on the mainstream success of Debbie Does Dallas, West’s new film explores the marriage of sex and horror like never before. Nothing feels as equally phony and honest as porn, but when layered into the concept of a bloody horror flick it gives an extra bit of oomph to every event (or “thrust” if you will). While West mercifully decided to create a group that isn’t made up of abusers and their groomed prey the film still spends a lot of time on the stigma surrounding pornography, as well as the allure of something so taboo. Several things come to fruition in a myriad of ways, almost all of them leaving people covered in bodily fluids on the floor, but our group of young adults spans from alluring to obnoxious while forgoing the abusive.
We start with a blood-covered ax embedded in a wooden porch, blood and bodies everywhere as the police try to figure out exactly what happened, but we’re immediately transported 24 hours into the past as Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) snorts cocaine in the back of the strip club owned by her boyfriend, Wayne (Martin Henderson). The two are embarking on a trip from Houston to a cabin for rent in the middle of nowhere, all so they can shoot a skin flick with co-stars Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi). They’ve brought along film student RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell) and his girlfriend/assistant, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). The crew arrives and discovers that Wayne hasn’t told the owners of the cabin, Pearl and Howard, what will be happening. Death follows and hilarity ensues.
It’s astounding that a film like this exists, shot on digital Hawkeye lenses that look indistinguishable from 16mm film to most and full of enough off-the-cuff production design that it feels like the greatest sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While most of the audacious aspects of the film (the faux sex scenes, Kid Cudi’s limp dick, and Jenna Ortega’s overly-mousy performance), it truly is the task this crew has embarked on that shines brightest. It’s set in Texas, for one thing, and the film is intercut with footage of a holy roller preacher on television shouting about the evils that are creeping in on a daily basis (these evils seem to just be the acknowledgment of sexual urges, a thing we’re still hearing from many to this day). It’s the fine line between slashers and porn, between comedy and horror, and the moral scrutiny that is often malevolently leveled at these two types of film that winds up on trial here.
Aside from anything thematic…we know what we’re here for. Horror fans are protective of their genre and see everything, ready to embrace brilliance and defend mediocrity as an unsung classic. We love this stuff, and we’ll try to see the best in it, but what we really came for is blood. Ti West is delivering it by the bucketful, never shying from the insanity when his slow-burn intro is out of the way, and I reveled in it. Strange as it may seem, the wildest stuff in the film isn’t the filming of the porno or the kills but rather the secrets held by Pearl and Howard on their backwoods farm. We came for bonkers, we get bonkers.
X isn’t going to please everyone (it’ll make many of you clutch your pearls and retire to your fainting couches), but those willing to engage with it on even a basic, lizard-brain level are going to have a good time. It’s earnestly horny, grotesquely violent, and even sort of romantic in places. Ti West has returned and he’s gone nuts with it (stay after the credits because that is some audacious shit right there), but he’s also delivered a nuanced film that somehow also features Brittany Snow as a pornstar. It’s just…wow.
X is currently playing in theatres.