Review: ‘X’ (where the spot marks you)

In a word? Decadent.

Setting out from Houston, Texas in 1979, a group of would-be filmmakers aim to revolutionize the adult film industry by making what they believe is the first art house porn film. Strip club owner Wayne (Martin Henderson) is funding the run-and-gun venture co-staring his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth), whom he says has that X-factor: the makings of a star. Worldly Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and ex-Marine stud Jackson (Kid Cudi) round out the film’s cast, but it’ll be the work of cinematographer RJ (Owen Campbell) on camera and his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) on sound that Wayne is counting on to make all the difference. The setting for “The Farmer’s Daughters” is the rented guest house of an old man named Howard (Stephen Ure) who hasn’t been told exactly what these big city folks are up to… but it’s all good, because Howard keeps secrets of his own.

When not acting himself, Ti West writes and directs his own work — notably the 2011 film The Innkeepers — as well as television episodes of “Scream” for MTV and “The Exorcist” for Fox. His latest is under the A24 studio umbrella, which already tells audiences something about what they’re in for, but the story goes deeper than that. West doesn’t shy away from plot complexity and story, including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conclusion to The Innkeepers, but his latest supposed slasher deals in human nature while also leaning heavily into taboo. Fresh from a SXSW debut, the film heads to theaters — but are audiences ready for a throwback where everything is disco?

X is best described as a self-aware exploitation of an exploitation film: art house horror masquerading as low-budget slasher fare. After a quick introduction, the principle characters are shown as both all-business and shockingly decent people… even the slightly slimy club owner who happily makes baloney sandwiches for his hungry cast and crew. The lightning pace engrosses viewers into who these people are even while setting them up for the coming bloodbath, including some amazingly human moments almost making one forget what kind of film this is. When the first body hits the ground, what’s happening isn’t as significant as the why of it making viewers’ skin crawl, confronting eventuality head-on without leaning on the supernatural as a crutch. As the characters might phrase it, this is some deep shit on every level.

The film is reminiscent of a 1974 movie called The House of Seven Corpses, where an amateur film crew uses an old home to make a horror film about the actual murders that happen there… before being murdered themselves in the same way. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the narrative in X loops back on itself in a disturbing way, both honoring and breaking slasher conventions while also elevating them. If The Cabin in the Woods was the bookend of slasher films, X is the re-imagining of them the way MidSommar elevated folk horror — thanks, A24! West also channels his inner Alfred Hitchcock as he merrily shows his audience what the characters don’t know. When his camera lingers on a nail through a board as a barefoot person wanders toward it, you know what’s going to happen, but the dread of imagining it is even worse when it comes.

There are plenty of artsy choices in the film, from era music selections and little touches to an overuse of blood when it comes to filtering headlights, but it’s cleverly internal. On the surface, one could assume it’s just another throwback slasher and enjoy it as such, but the cast, story, and visual choices aspire to be something more. There are hints of what M. Night Shyamalan touched upon with Old, but West makes the specific choice to focus on desire, the way society both craves and shuns sins of the flesh. It’s no accident a “secret” prequel (!) is already in the can — officially A24’s first-ever franchise — but horror fans will appreciate the levels of engagement in X, especially after seeing the credited cast in the end credits.

X is rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use, language, and enjoying the power and beauty of your youth… but trust me on the sunscreen.

Four skull recommendation out of four

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