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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: X (2022)

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Ti West’s return to the horror genre is his best work yet - creating a voyeuristic slasher that not only amplifies his strengths but gives us a film with a defined purpose that has as much substance as it does style that allows West’s instincts to evolve and mature, benefiting the terrified audience in the process. Set in Texas, 1979, X follows an amateur film crew shooting a porno, but they soon find themselves fighting for their lives once the old couple hosting them in their barn catches wind of what they are doing.

Despite having quite a devoted group of film buffs that champion his work, I never clicked with Ti West. The Innkeepers (2011) and particularly The House of The Devil (2009) are stylish, nostalgic, retro throwbacks to paranormal and haunted house horrors - replicating a specific atmosphere through tone, technique and performance that would have them sit comfortably alongside the effective, low-budget horrors of the 70s and 80s. Although its aesthetic approach and initial setups hooked me, they’d often lose me at the halfway mark as they would succumb to infuriating, aimless pacing that felt like a misuse of suspense - eventually treading water as the build-ups end up becoming useless, needlessly long detours in arriving at their eventual punchlines. On top of that, you just have a lack of ideas or insight from its author in approaching the topics and potential themes at play - hiding behind its slow-burn structure as an excuse. They were almost refreshing inclusions in a genre that can quickly turn stagnant while samey, recycled, mainstream horror franchises dominate the spotlight. Apart from its admittedly stylish recreation of nostalgic, retro horror, they never really brought anything new to the table for me - rehashing ideas in ways that apart from its aesthetics and initial setup, weren’t particularly interesting or exciting to me.

Although X isn’t breaking the mould for horror, and let’s be honest, it’s nearly impossible to do anything truly original in film these days, Ti West gives us something that truly does feel refreshing as a slasher in the current horror climate. There are clearly defined themes, ideas and most importantly, purpose within each build-up and eventual scare in the film’s structure and plot - ingredients I found were lacking in his previous efforts that felt more like remixes of better horror movies that had very little to say or add to the genre. Although X is about young people making dirty movies and getting killed along the way, it’s not really about that. The external conflicts and plot allow Ti West to play with and manipulate clichés, tropes and archetypes of the slasher flick to his advantage - letting him turn the tables and give us something fun, scary, and most importantly, refreshing for the genre.

X’s setting is not just an obvious nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but most importantly, one that elevates and amplifies its themes even louder - setting itself against a religious, conservative backdrop that lets key themes of perversion and oppression run rampant while opposing forces of liberation and expression look to defeat them. It’s a simple, yet smart juxtaposition of ideals in having these young, creative people roll through and shoot a porn film. These kids aren’t necessarily doing immoral, evil things (according to the locals at least), but are following their own ambitions - aiming high while adhering to their beliefs of personal freedom and expression amidst the oppressive influence of religion and its evangelical TV pastors that dominate and dictate the lives of these God-fearing Texans. And that’s also what makes this batch of slasher-ready victims so likeable is that they all have a defined set of goals and beliefs - ones that adjust and grow accordingly, letting us truly root for them instead of praying for their demise. It’s also something that allows us to feel sympathetic towards the villains of X: the scary ghouls that stammer around their haunted house as they grieve and regret the lives they never had, becoming the ghosts that haunt themselves.

Perversion leads to voyeurism, and that’s just what Ti West takes advantage of here. He lets the peering, envious eyes of this couple become the film's boogeyman - seeing a life of freedom they could’ve had if they broke free from the conservative expectations heaped upon them. Ti West often likes to draw visual parallels between the old couple’s lives and that of the young filmmakers in X - juxtaposing their situations, roles and conflicts within themselves and one another as they look on in disgust, pity and envy. This juxtaposition is made most apparent through that of Maxine and the old lady of Pearl. **MINOR SPOILERS The entire cast is outstanding but it's Mia Goth that reigns supreme. She is one of the most versatile actors around, and it shows here as Ti West opts to make Goth not only play Maxine but Pearl as well, allowing her to play two characters that are pretty much one and the same despite their circumstances. MINOR SPOILERS** Maxine constantly tells herself throughout: “I will not accept a life I do not deserve”. It’s a reminder of both their scenarios as Pearl, who once was an ambitious dancer, got trapped in a life that denied her potential greatness and oppressed her true identity – something that Maxine is fighting to avoid. Not only are these characters allowed to hold a mirror up to one another, but Ti West also lets all the woman dictate their own fate within X. They’re often pushed and prodded towards something by a male counterpart, but end up losing the battle as the women come out on top, becoming the rightful masters of their own fate. They’re not just pieces of flesh made for sex in this movie, oh no, they’re fully formed characters made all the more believable as they each search for their own piece of freedom in an aggressively oppressive world.

Like porn films, nothing is always as it seems. “It’s not real, it’s just the movies” director RJ (Owen Campbell) tells his girlfriend, an onset sound recorder Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). And true to that statement, the villains are also not what they seem. Their ghostly, undead-like appearance is obviously terrifying as they quietly murmur and creep around watching them from a distance, but they are given insightful, often heartbreaking moments that don’t look to justify their actions but at least give us a chance to understand why they’ve become the monsters they are. They’re products of their conservative environment - two people who love each other but just cannot express it in a way they want to or can anymore. “Tell me I’m special” pleads Pearl to her husband as they hold each other, longing for the life she once had.

Ti West’s films are often scary, it’s just the pacing for me that ruins the punchline of each scare. I love slow-burn horrors, and although he is a keen practitioner of such, I just find his way of going about it to be tedious and just plain boring for the most part as he treads water for the sake of treading water. Here, he still holds onto his brand of slow-burn, but thanks to an addition of a co-editor (a first time for him as he edits all of his films himself), West is able to properly utilize long and steady build-ups to create effective and awesome jump scares, gruesome kills and highly unsettling moments of pure dread. This addition looks to have done the trick as West’s intentions appear to be clearer and more potent. It helps that his script is excellent with its clear and concise purpose, but it’s with the edit that also saves West from possibly over-indulging as he has done in the past.

You’d think a horror film set in Texas, during the 1970s would owe all of its identity to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it does, but not nearly as much as you’d expect. And thank goodness for that. Ti West loves to recreate a specific aesthetic in all of his films that work as nice throwbacks and nods to his influences, but thankfully he shows a mature level of restraint here, opting to prioritise his characters and their important development that sets X apart from the overdone clichés and tropes in other slasher films. As brilliantly demented and completely unmatched in atmospheric terror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t stand on its own two feet in regards to story and compelling characters among its victims who are mostly annoying and just dumb (just my opinion don’t @me, bro). Here, we are at least offered a cast of interesting characters, each one with believable goals and traits that allows them to live and breathe as people instead of becoming cardboard cut-out victims we have seen a million times before.

In a lot of ways, X feels like a counter-culture film, at least within A24’s catalogue – a production/distribution company who are spearheading some of the most innovative, artsy and deeply complex horror films right now. Slasher films are often not as introspective or as thematically dense as other subgenres underneath the horror banner, and although X has deeper themes than expected scumming on the surface, it doesn’t become pretentious and just lets itself be a fun slasher film first and foremost - one that truly stands out from the more nuanced, psychological horrors under the A24 banner. So what better counter-culture film to emulate in some way than that of Easy Rider (1969), one of THE counter-culture films of its time that not only followed a literal counter-culture of hippie bikers but broke all the rules of The Golden Age of Hollywood, effectively kickstarting a new wave of indie filmmakers in America that looked to buck the system and its expectations of technique, story and themes. Adult films were totally a form of counter-culture during this period, relying on tiny budgets and experimental methods in capturing and creating new forms of art. I actually chuckled in the cinema when the edit made use of one of Easy Rider’s trademark editing techniques: quick-fire back-and-forth cuts transitioning from one scene to the next, letting X use it in an interesting new way that not only disorientates the viewer like its original intention but creates its own, distinct death rattle that drapes over us.

X is a brilliant genre film that may not be entirely ground-breaking or as delicately nuanced as its horror siblings under the A24 umbrella, but it’s a truly excellent and effective refresher from the slow-burners I find myself more enamoured with. It’s hilarious, clever, fun, gruesome, terrifying, and surprisingly unpredictable - delivering twists that are made all the more satisfying once you read between the broad lines of each scare and at the battle of oppression and liberation. It’s the Ti West film that has finally worked its magic on me, drawing me closer before it bites my head off and leaves me in the reeds. I like this feeling. Bring on the prequel.

Where you can watch it: In theatres (Worldwide)

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