It’s 1979. The sun is beating down on the Texas countryside, the porn industry is on the precipice of a glorious, VHS-fueled boom, and there’s not a care in the world for X’s gang of zealous porn-stars as they travel to the boonies to make the next masterpiece in adult cinema. Well, that is, until the owners of the farmhouse they are renting out go ax/gun/knife-happy, reminding us that, oh shit, this place looks a lot like where that unsuspecting cohort got hacked to death just five years prior in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Horror-master Ti West isn’t afraid of the Chain Saw comparison; in fact, he welcomes it. From the luscious, grainy, middle-of-nowhere imagery to the close proximity of sexiness to scariness to the rusty old pick-up trucks, and everything in between, X is a whole-hearted homage to the ’70s slasher movement. And unlike the majority of its kind, it actually manages to live up to its predecessors.
X follows a gang of misfits who travel from Houston to rural Texas to shoot a low-budget porno on a farm. There’s Maxine (Mia Goth), a young burlesque dancer with fiery, coked-up ambition, whose macho-cowboy boyfriend-slash-director, Wayne (Martin Henderson), regularly amps up by claiming that she has the “x factor.” Also on the road trip is flirty southern belle porn-veteran Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), her sometimes-boyfriend and scene-partner, Jackson (Scott Mescudi, also known as Kid Cudi), impassioned cameraman RJ (Owen Campbell), and his quiet, uptight girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega).
At first, everything seems to be going well for the team. That is, if you somehow manage to ignore the weird old couple who own the farm and won’t stop staring out the damn window. Eventually and inevitably, the couple descends on the farmhouse, and X really kicks into high gear. What follows is a flurry of well-paced, atmospheric blood-spatter, and highly creative kills that are simultaneously nauseating and hilarious.
What is it, exactly, that makes this film stand out amongst the dense catalog of Chain Saw homages? For one thing, X has a distinct purpose. Its characters are on a clear mission, not only to make a porn that launches them into stardom, but also to test the limits of the sexual liberation movement of the 1970s.
Throughout the film, the characters continually circle back to discussing the taboo nature of sex. When en route to the location, Lorraine refers to their film as “smut,” to which RJ indignantly responds that an adult film can be a work of art. Later, Lorraine asks Wayne and Jackson how they can stand to watch their girlfriends sleep with other people, to which Maxine responds that suppressing one’s sexual urges can be a harmful thing.
The problem of sexual liberation also turns out to also be the central conflict of the film. In an early scene, the old woman, Pearl (a heavily made up Mia Goth), explains to Maxine that she used to be beautiful and effortlessly desirable, and that all of that faded away with her old age. She wants to have sex, but Howard won’t sleep with her for fear that his heart will give out. Pearl is envious of Maxine and company’s free-spirited sexuality and youth—so much so that she decides to go after them with an aggregation of lethal weapons.
Not only does the theme of sex serve as an intriguing thematic through line in X, but it also calls attention to one of the most conspicuous aspects of the old-fashioned slasher film—the connection between violence and sex. The film considers the link between the two with its nimble editing, courtesy of West and co-editor David Kashevaroff. When the crew starts directing the film, West juxtaposes their 16mm creation with eerily similar sequences at the farmhouse, visual harbingers of the imminent bloodbath. At one point, West also takes care to frame blood-spatter like an ejaculation, and soundtrack wizards Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe compose choruses of moans to sound like cries for help during sex scenes.
On the whole, X proves that West is a master of craft. In The House of the Devil, he ingeniously drew out suspense through his slow, careful editing, and 13 years later he still hasn’t lost his touch. He and cinematographer Eliot Rockett favor long-shots that convey a sense of something ominous lurking on the horizon. West will let a violent moment play out almost until the end, cutting to another character just in time to keep us waiting for the climax. A couple times, he transitions from scene to scene by integrating flashes from one into another—which is particularly effective in building suspense when one of the images is of a character floating in an open pond as something sneaks up behind her.
In order for a horror film to accomplish true edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s important to care at least somewhat about the characters. X has no problems in this department. Wayne continually tells Maxine that she has the x factor, and Goth makes that statement convincing—she’s effortlessly charismatic, and impossible to peel your eyes away from. Henderson brings enough goofiness and bravissimo to Wayne to make him a likable Chad, Snow is laugh-out-loud funny as Bobby-Lynne, and terror springs convincingly to life in Ortega’s face, further solidifying her scream-queen status.
As long as horror has been around, so have horror homages. Sometimes they work; often they don’t. The trick to the former? It’s hard to describe. Sometimes you really do just need that x factor. And boy, does X have it.
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West
Stars: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Scott Mescudi, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure
Release Date: March 18, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.