Ti West, likely best known for the slow burn throwback The House of the Devil, hasn’t made a horror movie in nearly a decade, so it’s a joy to report that he makes a glorious return to the genre with X, another slow burn throwback. The simple premise of “a group of young people go to a farm to shoot a porn film, but it turns into a slasher” delivers on painfully drawn out suspense sequences and delightfully bloody kills. X offers some of the best practical effects gore in recent years, and West is still a master of the slow burn. Even as the first half of the film overwhelmingly functions as buildup (following an after the fact investigation opening sequence which shows the area covered in blood, bodies, and weapons), West injects moments of tension with some expertly crafted sequences, one of which involves a surprising but very welcome alligator. The movie is also very clear about its horror influences, from the lifting of the aesthetic of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to moments that reference or outright recreate scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and The Shining.
But all of that horror pedigree does not prepare viewers for the thoughtful and often emotionally powerful consideration of beauty and age that we get with the film. X uses its genre to explore very real discomforts and fears about aging (as evidenced by the frequent nervous laughter from fellow audience members at my screening). The film focuses just as much on the elderly couple who own the farm as it does the group of young filmmakers, and pays special attention to former dancer Pearl (Mia Goth in an amazing dual role as the old woman and would be adult film star Maxine).
In an absolutely devastating use of split screen around the halfway point of the movie, we see actress Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow in a surprising role) sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”, while the other young, beautiful people listen on one side, and on the other see Pearl consider her aging body at a vanity and apply make-up to make herself beautiful and desirable. West plays with the split screen as well, switching the sides around and sometimes maintaining the solid black line for individual shots.
Though its most emotionally affecting moments are certainly those focused on Pearl, her relationship to her body, and the relationship she wants her husband to have with her body, X isn’t just about the effects of age, physically and psychologically. It also offers many discussions on sex, filmmaking, and the relationship between films/filmmaking and reality. In the same setup that offers one half of the aforementioned split screen, the cast and crew of the movie within a movie (titled The Farmer’s Daughters) discuss the differences between sex and love, and how the camera changes the meaning and even the reality of actions that are being filmed.
X is also self-reflexive in fun ways. Early on, director RJ (Owen Campbell) talks about using a more experimental style of editing for The Farmer’s Daughters. From that point forward, the film often flashes back and forth between different locations, instead of simply cutting from one to the next as it moves from scene to scene. It also invokes Psycho and that film’s iconic change in direction shortly before it moves from a suspenseful movie about shooting a film about desire on a ranch owned by a woman who misses feeling desired, into a full fledged slasher.
The only criticism one could levy at X is that it’s overambitious and attempts to tackle too many different themes and ideas. But at an hour and 46 minutes (including credits and a post credits scene), the movie is a marvel of narrative economy, managing to be densely packed with ideas and sequences of drawn out suspense without ever feeling like there’s a pause in or even lack of momentum. Part of this is that the narrative of the film itself offers some commentary on slashers, functioning as both a love letter to and refutation of some well-known tropes. It also certainly helps that once the violence begins, with a wonderfully slow kill that may well take up a full two minutes, the movie moves faster and faster until the final few deaths all happen within seconds of each other. X is a modern slasher masterpiece that loves its ancestors and makes me hope West won’t wait another 9 years before making another horror movie.
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