X might sound like a straightforward slasher picture. If you want to get yourself killed in a horror movie, there are three things you need to do. 1) Stop at a gas station. A creepy attendant isn’t required, but it’s a bonus. 2) Rent a room at a secluded farmhouse from a mysterious farmer and his old lady. 3) Have lots and lots of sex. The main characters do all of the above in the first several minutes. Going one step further, they shoot a porno movie, intensifying the potential for bloodshed. While the characters aren’t very bright, writer/director Ti West is.
Although films like Psycho planted the seeds for the slasher genre, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre arguably laid the blueprint that we’re still using today. West draws inspiration from these two classics, which both fittingly had serial killer Ed Gein in common. Like Psycho, X cleverly plays with the audience’s expectations. Until the third act, we’re not even entirely sure who the main character is. Like Texas Chain Saw Massacre, X embraces its lower budget with a gritty aesthetic and grindhouse charm. While Texas Chain Saw was shocking for 1974, director Tobe Hooper tried downplaying the violence to achieve a PG rating. The film was rated R anyway with the MPAA originally giving it an X rating. West’s film goes all out with creative kills, unapologetic nudity, and not an ounce of shame.
X sets itself in 1979 at the dawn of the slasher golden age and in the middle of porn’s golden age. Between Scream, Studio 666, and X, Jenna Ortega has appeared in three horror movies in less than three months. Here, she plays Lorraine, the mousy girlfriend of RJ (Owen Campbell), an adult film director who takes his “art” too seriously. Brittany Snow channels Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas as the film’s leading lady. Her screen partner is the suggestively named Jackson Hole, played by (Scott Mescudi). As the producer, Martin Henderson is like Woody Harrelson and Burt Reynolds rolled into one pornstache. Finally, there’s Mia Goth, who continues her streak of unrecognizable performances as Maxine.
Speaking of unrecognizable, Stephen Ure has spent much of his career hidden under makeup, playing Grishnakh and Gorbag in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you thought the Orcs were grotesque, Ure is even more chilling as trigger-happy farmer Howard. He’s married to the equally twisted Pearl, who’s initially kept concealed like Mrs. Bates. It isn’t long, though, until Pearl gets too close for comfort. She’s also reminiscent of Mrs. Kersh from It Chapter Two, making the audience laugh and cringe in horror simultaneously. I won’t reveal who plays Pearl, but the casting adds another layer to the narrative. It also leaves the door open for a prequel.
A bit like It Follows, X provides commentary on sex’s role in horror movies. What’s more, West unearths intriguing parallels between horror and porn. RJ says that he wants to reinvent the porn genre, although everyone tells him people only care about the private parts. Likewise, some horror producers assume that audiences only want gratuitous violence. While X delivers in that department, it also explores youth, beauty, and the unforgiving nature of time.
Psycho pushed the limits of how sexuality could be portrayed in film. Although tame by today’s standards, many critics saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as pornographic upon release. Some might write off X as porn. I think it’s one of the year’s best horror pictures.