Ti West has been consistently making some interesting strides within the horror genre since his debut feature, The Roost. His films, The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, routinely appear on modern best-of lists, but his latest project, X, is set to eclipse both with its weird and wild take on the traditional slasher format.
Set in the state of Texas in the year 1979, X opens with a stationary shot of a sun-drenched farmhouse. Framed in the classic 4:3 aspect ratio, audience attention is drawn to the house. Properties like it have become a staple feature in horror and the viewer quickly starts to imagine what secrets the house might hide. Slowly, the frame widens out, and in doing so sucks the audience into the screen world; as a police car arrives, interest is piqued. As the local Sheriff arrives on the scene it’s revealed that something terrible has gone down on the land. The camera follows the Sheriff as he investigates, though it is keen to hide the horrors from those outside of the police force. The audience are aware that something grim has occurred, but the graphic details are kept from them. This happens right up until a truly terrifying discovery is made within the cellar, at which point the camera pans onto and off of the Sheriff’s shoulder and suddenly the story has time travelled twenty-four hours back.
This jump back in time introduces Maxine (Mia Goth) and her troupe of filmmaker friends, Warren (Martin Henderson), RJ (Owen Campbell), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), and Jackson (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi). The group are on their way to the doomed farmhouse to film their new take on a porn film; RJ is determined to make a classy dirty movie that’s pure cinema. Their arrival at the property instantly causes friction with their host, Howard (Stephen Ure), but after agreeing to keep to the boarding house, an uneasy truce is formed. As night falls however, all Hell breaks loose and the audience finally gets to witness the atrocities teased in the opening firsthand.
X is a Ti West movie to its core. The filmmaker has kept a firm hand on the production and, in addition to directing, he also writes, produces, and edits the piece. The result is a movie of a singular and distinctive voice, and one that undoubtedly belongs to Ti West. X fits neatly alongside other movies in West’s back catalogue whilst remaining its own unique entry. Whereas other films by West have analysed the occult and found footage, this time around his attention turns to the classic slasher sub-genre. His approach is substantially more quiet and considered than the genre’s traditional loud and occasionally farcical nature. X is a slasher film that manages to be sinister, strange, and genuinely creepy thanks in part to West allowing the audience into the space of the hunters as well as the hunted.
After arriving at the farm location, executive producer Warren remarks that it’s “better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” and this is a mantra that accurately reflects West’s own drive to create. Rather than produce something that sticks to convention that will easily win over the crowd, X deviates and challenges. Its subdued pace and subtle tone certainly don’t adhere to the typical crowd-pleasing aspects of a slasher film. In fact, with all its deep shadows and nocturnal scenes, X aligns more closely to the haunted house plot, the creep factor winning against the prerequisite of overly dramatic kill sequences. Whereas West may find himself begging some viewers for forgiveness for his tonal choices, the kills themselves should pass with little contention. The deaths in X aren’t excessively set-up; many kills, the first in particular, come somewhat out of left field (at least in terms of execution). They might feel pedestrian when compared to some of the classics, but each fresh dispatch is a rather bloody and gruesome affair. Although not quite as flashy as some might hope, there is the right balance of cruelty to satisfy the bloodthirsty masses and there are at least a couple of wtf methods of maniacal murder.
There’s an artistry to the construction of X that is beguiling to watch. West recreates the appearance of the seventies exploitation movies that X is hoping to emulate perfectly. Were it not for the familiar modern cast one could easily be tricked on its era of creation. It’s not just the look though, X is so dissimilar to any of its peers one can’t help but be seduced by it. The sound design is kept quiet, the bare minimum of sounds of nature accompanying the visuals provides plenty of silence, West grasping the horror found in the calm and the still. It is with the editing that the true style of the piece comes together. There’s a repeating technique used to transition between scenes that calls attention to itself, momentarily jarring the viewer, which elevates X above films more content to conform. So many filmmakers are scared to show their own identity, particularly within the horror genre, and in X Ti West has proved that he isn’t one to be intimidated.
Helping sell the story and the characters are a great and committed cast of actors. Each put everything they have onto the screen and collectively create a group of potential victims that will stand the test of time. Of the group it is the female contingent that have the slightly stronger edge. Goth, Snow, and Ortega all have a history working within horror and their experience shines through. Snow uses her time in comedy (and even musicals) to fully flesh out her exhibitionist counterpart Bobby-Lynne to make herself an easy favourite of the film. Ortega is riding a horror high at the moment, and whilst her character of Lorraine isn’t in the same league as Scream’s Tara, she demonstrates another side of Ortega’s abilities. It is however, Mia Goth who entrances the audience from her first appearance on screen. Her character Maxine is a tricky one to figure out, but her mystique makes her all the more alluring. There’s more to Goth’s contribution to the project than initially suspected, and once that penny drops, her talents are even more exciting to watch.
Beneath its slasher trappings, X has plenty to say about attitudes to sex and ageing, and sex whilst ageing. It’s an interesting position to take, although one that isn’t a stretch for the sub-genre. Sex and slashers have always gone together, but this new discourse opens the subject up in new and fascinating directions. The move is the kind that essay after essay could be written about, but it’s a little too soon to dig into at this present moment.
The slasher film is having a rightful resurgence at the moment and Ti West’s entry proves that they can be scary as well as entertaining. For too long audiences have become accustomed to films like Scream that poke fun at its history, and X is a fresh addition that takes the concept back to its more serious roots. There’s still plenty of fun to be had, but with the onus on unease and tension ensures a more nail-biting viewing experience that will see X yet another future ‘best of’ lists entry for West. Exquisitely enjoyable thanks to some dynamic plot and stylistic decisions, with X Ti West puts the sexy and serious back into a long abused sub-genre.
X is in cinemas now.
This review was first published on THN.