A lot of filmmakers hold the sort of sleazy, low-budget exploitation movies that were once common in drive-ins and grindhouse theaters across the country in very high regard, and so often pay extensive homage to them in their own films. Quentin Tarantino is the best-known example, but among those who peddle exclusively in horror, perhaps no one is more adept at aping the style and tone than Ti West. Much like many of the movies he is imitating, his typically start off relatively slowly, sometimes waiting until well past the halfway point for the inevitable mayhem to kick in. And much like his forebears, once it does get going, it is often gleefully over-the-top.
In his latest feature, X, we are introduced to Wayne (Martin Henderson), the manager of a strip club and an aspiring movie producer, who along with his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), friend and fellow stripper Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and her on/off boyfriend Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudo) head off to a rented farmhouse to shoot an adult movie in the hopes of escaping their current lives in late 70’s Texas. Also along are director RJ (Owen Campbell), who has aspirations to try and make the movie more artistic than the usual pornographic fare, and his girlfriend Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), who is somewhat taken aback by the sort of project she will be assisting on.
The early scenes of the movie, in which we meet our 6 leads, have strong echoes of the beginning of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as the group hangs out and chats in a van riding through the vast Texas countryside. A similar sense of dread looms over these proceedings, especially since the first few scenes show us glimpses of the aftermath of what lies ahead, hinting at the brutal fate that awaits the group. Once they arrive at their destination though, the similarities begin to wane. For a start, the elderly couple they are renting from, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth again), appear to actually put some effort into maintaining a tidy home. Likewise, they don’t seem to have any interest in cannibalism. But as their strange behavior, and the genre of the movie would suggest, they are still no less dangerous than Leatherface and company.
After being shown to their cabin, the group gets down to business, so to speak. Meanwhile, having spied on the activities of their guests, and making an unwanted advance towards one of them, Pearl pretties herself up and attempts to engage in intimate activity with her husband, but he refuses her claiming that his heart probably couldn’t handle it. As we see Pearl removing her makeup and then crying it becomes apparent that the rejection isn’t an uncommon occurrence, and it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sadness for the deep well of loneliness inside her. That sympathy is soon erased however, when she goes about dealing with her feelings in the worst way possible.
Writer / director West smartly overlays panoramic shots of their desolate surroundings with Tyler Bates’ eerie score to maintain a near constant sense of foreboding. He is likewise able to pull off a few effectively suspenseful moments once the action kicks in, further aided by the game cast. It’s an interesting if unconventional allegory for the fear of getting old, though at times it can feel like its attempts to shock us can feel ageist. The deaths are often very grisly and go some way towards ramping up the fear, though those with weak stomachs should probably stay away. Fans of horror movies and in particular West’s previous work like The House of the Devil, will lap this up. ★★★★
RATED R for STRONG BLOODY VIOLENCE AND GORE, STRONG SEXUAL CONTENT, GRAPHIC NUDITY, DRUG USE, AND LANGUAGE.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor