Ti West’s “X” is an unashamed ode to slasher movies that manages to capture what makes the good ones good while still being hampered by what makes the bad ones bad. Written and directed by West and produced by A24, “X” tips its hat to several movies both from the horror genre and beyond. West pulls most from 1974’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” – the blue van, the Texas country roads, a stop at an old gas station, the remote farmhouse. Even camera shots are ripped straight from Hooper’s classic.
Let me just say “X” is a far cry from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison. But for a movie that calls back as much as this one, it’s a comparison that’s kinda hard to avoid. “X” shows it has the setting, the atmosphere, and at times a filmmaker with the technical know-how to create something in the “Chainsaw” vein.
But West leans on the wrong things and wastes too much time spinning his wheels. Worst of all, it all feels like an imitation. And most of its attempts at “freshness” feel like gimmicks just to make things racier or edgier. It’s as if he’s trying to rekindle the feel of the old grindhouse movies. But aside from its steady dose of sleaze and its retro credits sequences, even the grindhouse comparison falls short.
The best scene (and some of the movie’s best pure filmmaking) is the opening. West sits his camera in the doorway of a barn peering at an old farmhouse that’s bookended by two police cars. A third cop car comes into the shot driven by Sheriff Dentler (James Gaylyn). The camera then slowly creeps out of the barn and locks onto the Sheriff as he walks to the house. Dead bodies litter this blood-soaked crime scene. West’s camera and his reliance on ambient sounds enhance the unsettling mood and help the scene foreshadow what’s to come.
But then we jump to just 24 hours earlier (the timeline in this thing never quite adds up). It’s 1979 and a group of friends load into an old dodge van and leave Houston for the countryside to shoot an amateur porno movie called “The Farmer’s Daughters”. The project’s executive producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) has rented a cabin belonging to a sickly elderly couple, Howard and Pearl. It sits roughly 100 yards from the old couple’s farmhouse which should be enough privacy for their shoot. But there’s a catch. Wayne never told Howard they would be shooting a skin flick. Oops.
Joining Wayne is his coked-up girlfriend and aspiring porn-superstar, Maxine (Mia Goth). There’s the blonde diva wannabe Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and her boyfriend/scene-partner, Jackson (rapper Kid Cudi). There’s the porn film’s director and cameraman RJ (Owen Campbell) who sits under the delusion that he’s about to make a true piece of cinema. And then there’s Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), RJ’s girlfriend and boom operator who reluctantly agrees to come along. Nicknamed “church mouse” by Wayne, Lorraine represents some kind of moral hesitation that the movie does nothing with.
After an uneven and sometimes yawny first hour where West’s infatuation with his porno movie-inside-the-movie chews up most of the screen time, the movie finally lets loose and delivers what slasher fans are there for. As you can probably guess, the old couple turn out to be geriatric psychopaths, especially Pearl who’s also played by Goth decked out in wonky looking prosthetics. It’s here that the already shallow characters make some of the same dumb choices we’ve seen countless times before (it’s no wonder they always die in these movies).
Throughout, “X” finds itself trapped between honoring slasher tropes and its aim to be “artful” or “elevated”. None of it is particularly convincing. The movie seems to want to say something about aging and sexual freedom. But it’s hard to take seriously when the characters feel so false. Even the jarringly abrupt attempts to humanize the killers are borderline comical. Like the film’s trite critique of religion which mainly comes through the blanket representation of a reappearing fire-and-brimstone TV preacher, none of it feels meaningful.
Yes it’s fun to see a nod to “Psycho”, a nod to “The Shining”, even a nod to 1980’s “Alligator”. Yes some of the gruesome kills in the final 30 minutes are well executed (pun intended). And yes I know the slasher genre is known for their collection of dumb people. But that doesn’t mean “X” gets a pass on its slew of missteps. In the end it simply feels like a trashy knock-off. And the things it does to supposedly freshen up the slasher genre are so minute that it’s hard to call anything about it “original”. “X” is now available on VOD.