X (United States, 2022)

March 17, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
X Poster

X is a fun movie – a throwback to the Grindhouse pictures of the 1970s and the slasher genre of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. With a tongue-in-cheek, devil-may-care approach, writer/director Ti West embraces many of the tropes that have since fallen into disfavor (copious T&A, for example) and splashes them all over the screen. The caveat, of course, is that a love of gory horror is a prerequisite for enjoying X.

West, as is his wont, doesn’t jump right into the action. Favoring a slow-burn to a burnout, he spends some time with the characters and, although none develops the full three dimensions, they have better rounded personalities than the plastic targets who populate most slasher films. Roughly the first half of the movie is an homage to ‘70s soft core/exploitation pictures, although there’s always creepy Howard (Stephen Ure) hanging around in the background to remind us that things are eventually going to get bloody. (There’s also a wraparound structure that opens the movie with police investigating what looks like a slaughterhouse massacre, so we know there’s going to be a substantial body count.)

The premise is simple enough – in 1979, a group of six adults have come to an out-of-the-way corner of Texas to make a porn movie. The director, RJ (Owen Campbell), has artistic aspirations. He prefers to call his picture an “independent film” and he’s focused more on the integrity of the production than its commercial prospects. The dollar signs are the purview of executive producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), who has arranged his merry band to rent a guest house from the geriatric, somewhat frightening Howard. RJ’s cast includes the well-endowed Jackson (Scott Mescudi), whose afro is as impressive as what he’s packing in his trousers; the free-spirited Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), who’s up for anything; and Wayne’s squeeze, Maxine (Mia Goth). Also along on the trip is RJ’s girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), who handles the sound equipment before deciding that she’d like a taste of what the other women are having.

X transpires over the course of less than 24 hours – a day and a night. The porn shoot takes place during the day and the killings come at night. There’s no real secret about who the perpetrators are. Other than creepy Howard and his even more creepy wife, there’s no one else on the property. Turns out, even though Howard has rented out his guest house, he doesn’t much like strangers. Throughout the proceedings, West never teases without delivering. When the camera pauses for a long, lingering shot of a nail protruding from a floorboard with the business end up, you know what’s coming.

The movie is funny – intentionally and in the right ways. West plays with tropes while at the same time honoring them. Despite having very little budget, he’s able to recreate the 1979 aesthetic with such aptitude that one can be forgiven thinking he found the movie rather than making it. (He takes a pointed jab at the “found footage” genre.) There are a lot of references, Easter Eggs, and in-jokes. The most obvious inspiration is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the Tobe Hooper 1974 original) but there’s a little Halloween and a dash of Friday the 13th to be found. (The use of Blue Oyster Cult’s “The Reaper” is a direct nod to the John Carpenter film.) West finds a way to use all of the horror/slasher cliches in such a way that they’re hip and engaging rather than tired and trite. It all comes down to tone.

The cast isn’t top heavy with A-listers. The three women – Mia Goth, Jenny Ortega, and Brittany Snow – all have respectable resumes. Although Snow is new to horror (for better or worse, she’s probably best known for the Pitch Perfect series), Goth has dabbled and Ortega is steeped in it (this is her third horror film of 2022…and it’s only March). Of the men, the best-known is Scott Mescudi (a.k.a. Kid Cudi). Martin Henderson has done some film and a lot of TV and does his best to channel Dirk Benedict here. Owen Campbell has lived mostly in independent film and has had the least mainstream exposure of the six principals. All of the actors are perfectly cast. They “get” the characters they’re playing, understand the genre, and have no qualms about going all-out. That includes nudity, gore, screaming and running, and everything else that goes along with this kind of film.

In 2022, horror has become a template-based genre that is more often than not made-to-order either for teenagers or 20-somethings who adore jump-scares. X is a reminder that, while the slasher genre had some very deep valleys, some of the most effective horror emerged from it (especially in the early days before the films became little more than orgies of inventive eviscerations). With X, West seeks to recapture some of the fun, edginess, and energy of those productions while at the same time delivering a few surprises. That he succeeds makes X a must-see for those who claim an affection for this sort of film.

X (United States, 2022)

Director: Ti West
Cast: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure
Home Release Date: 2022-05-24
Screenplay: Ti West
Cinematography: Eliot Rockett
Music: Tyler Bates, Chelsea Wolfe
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2022-03-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Nudity, Sexual Content, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.90:1