Review – X

Harkening back to the 70s-exploitation-slashers, renowned horror filmmaker Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Sacrament) has dialled up the sex, nudity, and violence to 11 in X – a retro-horror developed by the masterminds behind some of the greatest modern horror films, and every indie-film-lover’s favourite production company, A24. Serving as a homage to films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the good one, not the one I reviewed back in February of 2022), Last House on the Left and Halloween, underneath all of the slasher film references, is a solid narrative that elevates what could’ve been a shlocky-gore-fest, into a heartbreaking story about the regret of living a repressed existence.

Set in rural Texas, 1979, X opens on a local sheriff entering the brutal crime scene that is about to take place within the film. Blood, guts, and bodies lay over a secluded farm before we are thrown back 24 hours earlier to a group of young filmmakers on a road trip to the previous mentioned farm, in the hopes of creating the best adult film ever made. All seems to be going smoothly, with the beautiful sun-soaked farmland adding immense production value to the film, the physical chemistry of the actors is creating sparks everywhere, and the looming presence of creepy, ill-looking elderly folk with killer tendencies fills the air with an immense amount of tension before they begin the bloody bludgeoning.

A young director, RJ (Owen Campbell) has his heart set on combining artistic filmmaking with… porn, ultimately, and drags along his shy girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) to help record the sound, even though she is initially repulsed by the idea of watching people have sex on camera. Joining the young, budding filmmaker is the film’s producer and professional sleazebag, Wayne (Martin Henderson) who also shares RJ’s dream of creating the world’s greatest porno (as he states in the film: “Even better than Debbie Does Dallas”). And then, there is the talent, which include Wayne’s future-fiancée, Maxine (Mia Goth), and on-and-off couple both on-and-off the screen, veteran pornstars Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott Mescudi AKA Kid Cudi).

Even though X is Ti West’s homage to the slasher films of the 70s and 80s, complete with the boobs, butts, sex and violence of the era, there is a brilliant narrative bubbling away throughout the film that give a lot of substance to the plot, but mainly to a lot of the characters which in turn creates a truly investing and engaging piece of cinema. Early on in Maxine’s travels, she is snorting substances and repeating affirmations to herself in the mirror, affirmations stating that she deserves the life that she has worked hard for. Eerily, these affirmations sound like a radical televangelist that blasts over the television sets of petrol stations and living rooms in this rural, Texan town, often creating the moral allegories in which West’s script uses incredibly well for the events that occur throughout the film.

In typical A24 fashion, X is a slow-burn first hour, patiently establishing characters, plot, and motivations. However, it’s Ti West’s incredible script and direction that makes it a truly engaging movie to watch. From a visual standpoint, West utilises long takes and wide shots filled with the eerie silence of nature, that not only show off the vastness and seclusion of this farm but create an incredible sense of unease within the frame. It’s the sort of shots in which you will find yourself looking around the screen to see if West has hidden any luring bodies in the background. One scene early on, involving Maxine swimming in a lake, is a pure masterclass in slow building tension, and what seems like a red herring that pays off well later in the story. West’s unique editing style also helps X stand-out from other modern horrors, as he gels scenes together with vibrant cuts or smooth audio transitions that feel hypnotic.

His script carefully weaves themes of regret, getting old, religion and immorality into conversations between both the adult film crew, but also the creepy, elderly antagonists. While the story centres heavily on Maxine’s character and her unexplained emotional connection with this farm, the story often diverts towards Pearl (the elderly lady of the farm) and her repressed sexuality at the hands of her husband. Even though the televangelist blasts throughout their house with messages of fire and brimstone for those who act against the word of God, Pearl, a former dancer herself, often makes intimate advances towards her husband, often being met with rejection based on his ‘bad heart’. It’s when Pearl sneaks away from her house and catches a glimpse of Maxine and Jackson filming a scene for the porno, when a rage internalises within, causing her to begin her jealous and murderous rage, one of the likes seems all too familiar to her husband.

There is also a level of meta-ness within the plot that is thoroughly enjoyable but feels less on the nose than that of other horror films that have done it recently (e.g., Scream). That’s not to take a dig at horror films being ‘meta’, but they way it’s seamlessly interwoven into West’s dialogue and plot make it standout in a way that feels more light-hearted, rather than used for humour. In fact, when Lorraine (Ortega) admits later in the story that she wishes to star in the adult film, her hesitant boyfriend and director RJ states: “Well, now it’s going to turn into a completely different movie”. And that is surely what happens…

What follows then in the third act is what most audiences would have signed up for – 45-minutes of pure carnage and gore… and it’s bloody entertaining. Once the first kill occurs (arguably the most violent scene in the film), the pedal hits the floor, and the murderous rampage begins with all the entertaining horror-throwbacks including stabbing, dismemberment and people going off alone in order to find other people. The excitement and tension of the final act wraps up what the film has been slowly building up too, almost acting as a relieving aid to the tautness created in the first hour, which in hindsight, sounds like an odd way of describing watching people get mutilated on screen. But that is just a testament to West’s ability to still create believable and entertaining subversions, while still being a solid horror flick.

X is a hit – both as a homage-driven throwback to the great slashers and as an emotionally investing story. Each actor serves the movie very well, whether it’s dramatically, comedically or for the terror elements, with a standout performance from Mia Goth, who carries the heart of the film in her character/s. If you’re only expecting blood, guts and boobs, I implore you to wait out the initially slower first hour, because there is a great story being constructed, that hits it’s boiling point at the perfect time and will make the final act even more exciting and disturbing that you could ever imagine!

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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