Review: The artisanal horror of Ti West’s ‘X’ delivers more tease than release
Indie horror stalwart Ti West may not intend for his oeuvre of slow-chill creations (“House of the Devil,” “The Innkeepers”) to feel cozy. But for the discerning cinephile, his throwback style — preferring the massaging of creeps over slapping you with shocks, and the dread of a lonely space over the presence that explains everything — is a welcome embrace of sorts: nostalgic shivers that also produce a smile.
West likes to recalibrate your expectations for a horror film at the same time he revels in the less flashy elements that have long defined the form: patient shots, offbeat humor and the currency of eeriness. He believes the violence you create in your head is far more effective than anything he can show, but it doesn’t stop him from producing the requisite amount of grisly death when the need arises.
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Now, after many years away from the genre (since 2013’s “The Sacrament”), West is back in that malevolently playful mindset with “X,” a slasher homage to the sex-begets-death days of young, beautiful libertines in remote settings, well and truly screwed. The setting is 1979, and a vanload of aspiring pornographers from Houston are on their way to a secluded homestead to film something called “The Farmer’s Daughter.”
Fueling their smutty little project, however, are some serious dreams. For confident, freckle-faced starlet Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), fame is the goal, and porn is just a stepping stone, while her big-talking producer-squeeze Wayne (Martin Henderson) — thoughts of “Debbie Does Dallas”-style success dancing in his head — gets practically giddy thinking of the money to be made. He’ll even accommodate the artistic aims of his ambitious cineaste director, RJ (Owen Campbell) — whose nervous girlfriend (Jenna Ortega) is in tow to handle sound — because a wider audience just means more revenue.
With a camera-ready pair of swinging lovers in Jackson (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. rapper Kid Cudi) and Bobbi-Lynne (Brittany Snow) eager to answer the call to “Action,” all that’s left is for everyone to keep their project a secret from their farm hosts: crusty, rifle-toting World War II veteran Howard and his frail-looking, white-haired wife Pearl, first introduced to us as a ghostly figure in an upstairs window as she captures the wandering gaze of Maxine.
Although the setting and scenario are ripe for an existential body-count gorefest a la “Friday the 13th,” West has some other shadings in mind before he turns the screen red. One is that porn and horror are practically twins in the family business of tease and release, a point West stresses (a bit obviously) when he crosscuts between the porn crew’s filming of a ludicrous howdy-stranger setup scene and the first unnerving exchange in the main house between a snooping Maxine and the shut-in, but no less curious herself, Pearl.
‘Pearl,’ starring Mia Goth, was filmed in secret in part because of COVID-19 restrictions
The second has to do with the connection between Maxine and Pearl, which isn’t hard to figure out, because it’s also telegraphed by a scene in which Bobbi-Lynne sings Fleetwood Mac’s getting-older ballad “Landslide,” accompanied by a subdued use of story-melding split screen. The problem is that these efforts to elevate “X” into something evocative about youth, desire and aging don’t sit as comfortably in West’s filmmaking wheelhouse as the craft-oriented stuff — shadowy stillness, a suggestive angle, a shot held five seconds too long — that keeps us in a state of unsettled anticipation.
West may want your suspense held as much through the emotional grounding of his hapless and not-so-innocent characters as through his masterful technique, and on that front, Goth does a fine job embodying West’s themes of female agency and denied passion. But chances are you’ll be way more preoccupied by the genre lures: that alligator introduced so terrifyingly early on, wondering when that small ax is going to get used, or what’s in the old couple’s basement. It would be a mistake to call “X” a misfire — in its artisanal, period textures and delight in old-school atmospherics, it’s too well made. But it’s better at teasing than following through.
Rated: R for strong bloody violence and gore, strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts March 18 in general release
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