Modern slasher films often leave an essential element out of the formula.
The recent “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” reboot is a prime example. The film’s female leads don’t dress provocatively or shed their clothes. They’re not “getting it on,” either when Leatherface fires up his chainsaw.
Blame the woke mob or filmmakers trying to avoid the “male gaze.” Horror films aren’t as sexy, or titillating, as they were in the ’70s and ’80s.
“X” is old school in more ways than one.
It’s a slasher film, full stop, with plenty of blood-curdling kills and gore. It’s also obsessed with sex, giving the film a texture missing from recent bloodbaths.
Oh, and it’s excellent in most of the ways that count, from creepy chills and smart performances to an unrelenting sense of dread.
In short, director Ti West has done it again.
The year is 1979, and a band of filmmakers decamps to a small Texas town to shoot a nudie film. The VHS revolution is under way, and films like “Debbie Does Dallas” made their creators rich.
Why not them?
They strike a deal to shoot on an elderly rancher’s property, setting up shop in a building away from the main house. Wayne (Martin Henderson) oversees the venture, which finds his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth) and a gung-ho stripper (Brittany Snow) enjoying on-screen relations with a Marine turned adult movie star (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi).
This motley crew of dreamers, lovable if hopelessly naive, think their project will make them rich and famous.
“It is possible to make a good dirty movie,” says R.J. (Owen Campbell), the camera man with art-house aspirations. He posits himself the next Scorsese or Coppola, but he needs a tip from Snow’s character to make a simple gas-pumping scene more erotic.
View this post on Instagram
The cast and crew hide their real intentions from the rancher, but that secrecy is short-lived. And that’s when the horror elements bubble to the surface.
West’s previous horror films, like “The House of the Devil” and “The Innkeepers,” typify “slow burn” storytelling. They demand patience but make it worth the viewers’ while. With “X,” that’s only partially true. We enjoy getting to know the cast of characters, and the sly but essential humor keeps us engaged from the jump.
Who cares if blood doesn’t spill in the first act?
Plus, the mystery of the old rancher and his equally odd wife keeps viewers off balance for the film’s running time.
Sex is front and center here, for obvious reasons. The film-within-a-film’s moral boundaries feel hackneyed. Yes, it’s the late 1970s, and the cultural conversation on sex has matured since then. West still dedicates too much time to those exchanges, assuming there’s something profound to share.
That’s not the case. The film’s other theme, the collision of sex and Father Time, proves far more engaging.
Another microscopic miscue? The story repeatedly falls back on a TV preacher’s sermons, an element West overplays while adding little to the story.
Otherwise, “X” is squarely on target, using smart cinematography and an era-appropriate soundtrack to warn us the film in question may not wrap on schedule.
West may be paying homage to the era’s horror classics – there’s a distinct “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” vibe given the setting. Those films didn’t ladle on the blood and gore as we see here, though.
You’ve been warned.
“X” shows how horror films can tackle deeper subjects without ignoring the genre essentials. And West knows precisely how to combine those two, riveting elements.
HiT or Miss: “X” offers throwback genre treats along with a layered approach to sexuality.