A month ago, another installment in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series was released, an attempt to modernize the horror franchise while still harkening back to its gritty 1970s roots. It was a creative failure, too reliant on digitally enhanced gore and thudding callbacks. The task of matching an all-time classic seemed impossible. But a new horror film proves that challenge was hardly insurmountable: Ti West’s X is a lurid slasher based in rural ’70s Texas that brings plenty of invention to a tried-and-true setting.
X blends old and new, rather than just proffering empty references. The film evokes the grind-house energy of the original Texas Chainsaw while also pulling off complicated cinematic tricks that wouldn’t have been possible 50 years ago. West is a director with a deep understanding of period aesthetics—his breakthrough 2009 work, The House of the Devil, was a precise homage to the VHS video nasties of the ’80s; it looked like a once-banned movie that had just been unearthed. X could be another tribute, and even hints at the nasties genre with a teasing prologue in which a local sheriff comes upon a crime scene littered with mysterious film canisters.
West’s latest is titled after the now-defunct rating once given to the most shocking movies; fittingly, the canisters contain a few spicy reels of pornography. X follows a semiprofessional film crew that journeys to a small town to make a skin flick, renting a house on the land of two elderly farmers. Eventually, their shenanigans attract their hosts’ attention, the dynamic turns sour, and characters start to die, but X takes a surprisingly long time to move into slasher territory. West carefully builds out the relationships between each worker on the shoot while incorporating detailed backstory for the creepy older couple, meaning the monstrousness that unfolds later has real narrative purpose.
X is spearheaded by a pair of performances by the same actor, Mia Goth, who plays Maxine, one of the stars of the porno, and (buried under pounds of excellent makeup) Pearl, the reclusive older woman who takes an interest in the scandalous goings-on. The dual showcase is a remarkable one for Goth, who previously stood out in supporting roles in Emma, High Life, and A Cure for Wellness. Maxine is headstrong and assured of her future stardom. Pearl is a wispy ghost of a woman, reminiscing on her youthful beauty. West could have easily presented the character as pathetic, or stirred up by an inscrutable demonic fervor, but he instead lets the audience get to know Pearl and her ornery husband, Howard, before the two start chasing the youngsters around the farm.
The other unlucky guests are played by Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Scott Mescudi, and Brittany Snow, each of whom gets to have fun with characters who are vague without being mere cannon fodder. West is genuinely interested in analyzing the clash that takes over the farm, not just between old and young but between the repressed and the liberated; the carnage the couple carry out is motivated by their own confused feelings about sex. In the slashers of yore, an eye-roll-inducing motif was that sexually active characters would be picked off before the heroic virgins. Here, West makes that unspoken rule explicit, and so casts Howard and Pearl’s pent-up fury as all the more unsettling.
Outshining those thematic underpinnings, though, is West’s pure craft; he designs each scare sequence with consummate care, and refrains from using cheap jumps or overwhelming music to push up the tension. X has one of the best “character explores a dark cellar” scenes that I’ve ever seen—a standard of the genre, fine-tuned to perfection here. The set is simple—just two ramshackle homes and a field between them—and the budget seems fairly small, but the richness of West’s script and the depth of his characterization make everything feel expansive. The horror genre has, of late, been hijacked by purportedly “elevated” takes that avoid the simplicity of something like a slasher. X provides a map for how to do the classics right while still taking the formula somewhere original.