Writer-director Ti West’s “X” is his best film since the excellent 2009 throwback Satanic cult horror, “House of the Devil”.
From his very first feature length film (2005’s “The Roost”), West has proven himself a student of 1970’s genre filmmaking and a director who respects the craft.
Unlike Quentin Tarantino, West’s films don’t tip their hats to the 70’s, they ARE the 70s. To look at any frame from “House of the Devil”, “The Innkeepers”, or “The Sacrament”, one would believe they were filmed in that long ago decade where genre filmmaking was free. As a filmmaker, aesthetically, Ti West was born in the wrong era, but his director’s eye has the vision of an old soul.
Set in 1979 Texas (but filmed in New Zealand), “X” finds middle-aged producer Wayne (Martin Henderson, an actor who never left an impression until now with his committed and humorous performance) and his crew who have come to a remote farm where he has rented a “guest house” to shoot what he hopes will be his Porno opus.
His director is the aspiring filmmaker and cinemaphile RJ (Owen Campbell), who claims he can elevate this film beyond pornography and into a work of Art.
Wayne runs the Bayou Burlesque strip joint, which is where he found his actresses. The southern- fried producer has left his wife for young Maxine (a solid Mia Goth). A young woman with a cocaine problem and misguided dreams of being a big star “like Lynda Carter.”
Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and her boyfriend Jackson (Scott Mescudi, showing some acting chops) make up the rest of the cast.
Working the boom mic, is RJ’s girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, becoming 2020’s reigning “Scream-Queen” after January’s “Scream” and this month’s “Studio 666”).
When they arrive at isolated farmland, it becomes immediately clear that the proprietors (the elderly couple Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (also Goth under incredible makeup) are not aware of the crew’s intentions.
West sets the mood immediately, as his desolate sunburnt Texas backroads call back Cinematographer Daniel Pearl’s work on Tobe Hooper’s original “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
Eliot Rockett is behind the camera for “X” and the grainy mix of 16mm and carefully lit camera angles and lighting bake the film in that 1970’s Drive-In genre movie aura.
As the day’s shooting finishes and a full moon-covered night falls, everyone’s fun and sex-filled afternoon gives way to a nightmare.
West is smart in his build up to the macabre horrors that befall this group, as he is a patient filmmaker. There is no quick cutting or jarring shaky camera to bolt the film off its course.
West and Rockett hold on their shots. Sometimes the framing is tight, others it is in full shot, each time hinting at the terror that surrounds these people.
West plays his audience beautifully, occasionally to the level of Hitchcock (whose “Psycho” gets a mention and a visual homage).
This is not the type of Horror film that builds the tension only to let it explode in a finale of over-the-top frights. Throughout the film’s 1 hour and 45-minute run time, the director slowly enhances the tension, pulling tighter and tighter. Each time he teases that he may let loose, but West keeps pulling until the anxiety is almost suffocating… and then he tightens some more, playing with his audience just as he plays with genre conventions. This is extremely clever filmmaking.
Ti West assures his viewers are constantly on edge, creeped out, and uncomfortable, but his film is not without moments of levity.
There is humor in a few scenes where “Lorraine the pure” holds the boom and watches the sex scenes that she claimed would turn her stomach. As the camera holds on her face, we see her become more and more aroused. This leads to a conversation between everyone that is natural and funny and revealing; a small “Big Chill” moment, if you will.
As characters begin to wander around, Maxine is invited into the house by Pearl. It is an unnerving sequence, as the character had previously been kept in the background, eerily stalking the property with her out of focus silhouette casting a ghostly presence in the frame.
Face to face, the character is sickly thin with wild white hair and an old nightgown. Her presence is unsettling, and Maxine downs her lemonade, wanting to get the Hell out of there. Something is off with Pearl and her husband (and the house) and Maxine knows it.
At first, Pearl is a bit of a sad character. She misses her beauty and wants to be desired by Howard. For a short bit, our fear is lifted. The feeling doesn’t last long. Pearl and her husband aren’t exactly Ma and Pa Kettle.
There is sex in the film, but nothing is deprived, nor is the violence sexualized. We see them make their porno (“The Farmer’s Daughter”) and there is nudity, but it all feels natural and of the period. These are good normal open-minded folks. As one-character states, “Porn is no longer for the perverts.”
In a modern Horror film, to create characters we care about is rare. The filmmaker and his cast endear themselves to the audience, which makes the terrors that rain upon them that more shocking.
With homages to spare, Ti West made his own unique piece of entertainment, showing great skill at crafting jolting sequences (watch out for the alligator!) and keeping his violence brutal but to a minimum. Fear not gore fans, there is plenty of blood but the filmmaker uses it wisely.
With incredible atmosphere (enhanced by a moody score from Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe), a solid cast, a smart script (complete with a sharp jab at religious fanaticism), and pure artistic drive and imagination, this is one of the best Horror films in a long while.
So, get your popcorn, hot dogs, and soda, roll that window down halfway, and attach the speaker.
Ti West’s “X” is a fantastic slasher throwback that will thrill the Horror audiences of today and yesteryear.
Written and Directed by Ti West
Starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Martin Henderson, Scott Mescudi, Stephen Ure
R, 105 Minutes, A24/ BRON Studios