Making his return to feature films after a six-year hiatus, Ti West roars back with a grungy, atmospheric horror flick sure to please a crowd. Normally adverse to “x meets y” comparisons when describing films, I couldn’t help but recall both the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the famous “golden age” porno Debbie Does Dallas when watching West’s latest creation.
On that note, and on many more, X doesn’t just mark the spot. It nails it with true Grindhouse charm.
The year is 1979 when six young Houstonians, blinded by the possibility of fame, fortune, and the thought of being part of countless individuals’ masturbatory fantasies, set out to make “The Farmer’s Daughter,” a low-budget sex-flick.
The crew is a sum of some fairly strong parts, in more ways than one. Maxine (Mia Goth), a cokehead stripper working at a swampy burlesque house, sees this picture as her ticket to stardom. Her much-older boyfriend, Wayne (Martin Henderson), is your typical cowboy producer, who doesn’t see a way it could fail. Director R.J. (Owen Campbell) views it as an opportunity to emulate all the avant-garde/French New Wave tactics he’s picked up after a steady diet of Godard and Truffaut, even if his girlfriend/boom operator Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, whom you might recognize from the latest Scream) doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into. Castmembers Jackson (Scott Mescudi, better known as rapper “Kid Cudi”), a Vietnam vet, and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), the kind of blonde lollipop who single-handedly catapulted pictures like this one to being hot commodities, simply want their slice of American pie.
The gang shacks up at a farmhouse owned by a hostile codger named Howard (Stephen Ure), whose closest companions are his shotgun and his presumably dementia-stricken wife Pearl (also played by Goth). Howard permits Wayne and his friends access to the house, despite the fact the producer apparently lied about the extent of the crew. Trouble starts not long after the clothes come off, as the standard operating procedure of the horror genre would suggest.
West — serving as writer, director, producer, and co-editor — relishes in the parallelism taking place between both the film crew and the older couple. He employs a lot of editing tricks, such as frequent cross-cutting that has us seeing quick flashes of another, opposite setting. Sometimes, the frame is divided and we see two concurrent events at once. The most obvious parallel is between Mia Goth’s characters. Beyond up for the task in two dynamic roles, Goth is barely recognizable as a frail, elderly woman. The younger Maxine has a lot in common with Pearl, a failed dancer, who is physically and mentally rotting away on a secluded ranch. Glimpses of Pearl’s life are spliced into Maxine’s big sex scene with Jackson, all while Pearl peers through one of the dirty windows.
X clues us into the imminent danger very early, when the crew’s van — bearing the cheeky name of “Plowing Service” — passes through the backroads of Texas and finds a fly-ridden cow carcass on the side of the road. A closeup of the tires crushing its entrails and leaving a bloody track foreshadow West’s desire to show carnage close-up. Even in his most accomplished efforts (The Innkeepers, The Sacrament), West has never shown an explicit interest in unlocking deep-seated psychological motivations within his narratives. That is completely fine; not every horror film needs to be as “elevated” as other films so fortunate to be distributed by A24.
Instead, West has shown total commitment to 1970s-inspired horror. He continues to build on that long-standing fascination with X. Cinematographer Eliot Rockett captures the empty fields of Texas to look as menacing as any city’s gangway. The soundtrack is peppered with era-specific classics — Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” sets a lightweight tone early until Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” blares on the radio during the movie’s first kill — along with some truly timeless-sounding compositions, a credit to Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe. All of these elements make X feel authentic to the period — West’s chief accomplishment with almost every film thus far.
A word of advice: stay for the whole film, including the end credits. Patient viewers are treated to what is essentially a teaser trailer of an upcoming prequel, shot in secrecy along with X. If you’re anything like me, you’re hoping it comes out sooner rather than later.
NOTE: X is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Mia Goth, Martin Henderson, Stephen Ure, Scott Mescudi, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, and Jenna Ortega. Directed by: Ti West.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!