X: Refreshingly Straightforward Horror
After last month’s miserable Texas Chainsaw Massacre, fans of Tobe Hooper’s original sunbleached classic will likely find some degree of solace in Ti West’s X. The latest horror offering from A24 (and perhaps their most purely entertaining, with scarcely an “it’s really about trauma” take to be found) clearly pays homage to 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its premise of a caravan of (mostly) young people who’ve made their way to a rural Texas farmhouse in the late ‘70s only to discover the local residents aren’t as pleasant as one might hope. And though that’s about as far as the similarities go, West admirably recaptures the atmosphere of ‘70s and ‘80s low-budget horror — albeit in his own winking, deliberate manner.
The winking is key, because there’s a version of this movie that’s a total slog. As a filmmaker, West tends to move at an unhurried pace, content to build atmosphere and tension for longer stretches than most. It’s not always a successful tactic, and that holds true here — I reached a point in X where my feeling was less “the tension is too much” and more “okay, somebody needs to die already.” Even at 106 minutes the film feels a little too stretched out, but its saving grace is its willingness (rarer in this genre than you’d like) to not take itself too seriously. You see, this out-of-their-depth cast of characters — including standouts Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, and Brittany Snow — have come to this quiet Texas property to shoot their latest adult film. The writer-director (Owen Cambell) claims it will show the world that porn can be artistic cinema, but for the rest of the crew it’s mostly another opportunity to show their audience some good, honest sex. What they’re unprepared for is that their audience will include the elderly couple they’re renting the house from, a duo whose relationship to sex is…complicated, to say the least.
West mines plenty of humor from his premise without turning it into an out-and-out horror comedy, knowingly reveling in horror’s obsession with both promiscuity and virginity. Snow and Goth, along with Kid Cudi, provide humanized, wryly funny depictions of adult film stars who are — for the most part — supremely confident in their own skins. West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett capture the film shoots with an appropriately gauzy sheen, which contrasts nicely with the faux-retro (though still distinctly modern) look of the rest of the film. The visual stylings of the film are perhaps its greatest pleasure, making unsettlingly enjoyable use of split-screen, montage, and overlapping scene transitions, and while it takes a little too long for the blood to flow, when it eventually does the violence is nicely visceral and often hilariously gratuitous.
Ultimately, X stands as a refreshingly uncomplicated genre exercise, uninterested in bogging itself down with overt metaphor and instead allowing itself to revel in period vibes and titillate with sex and violence. Yes, it’s both a bit too slight and a bit too indulgent, but in this era where horror movies too often try to reverse engineer allegory or hit the audience over the head with how smart and metacritical they are, there’s plenty to be said for a scary movie that exists just to entertain. I mean this in the best possible way: even if you walk out of the theater and never think about X again, it will have served its purpose in a way that more movies should probably strive for.