SXSW 2022 Review: X, Scary Sexy Fun In Sweaty South Texas
Romance may not be dead, but it sure is deadly in Ti West’s X, the latest film from the horror auteur best known for 2009’s satanic panic shocker, House of the Devil. West makes his way back into the horror fold after a bloody western detour in 2016’s In a Valley of Violence, and it’s a welcome return for one of the 21st centuries most interesting genre voices. Far from the slow burn storytelling of his last three horror features, House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament; X is a balls-out sexy slasher that recalls his earliest work and proves that the much-maligned subgenre still has potential to surprise after over forty years of exploitation.
The story follows a sextet of young, hungry filmmakers as they travel into rural south Texas in 1979 to film a no-budget, bootstrap porno movie. It is the brainchild of the smooth talking, McConaughey-esque Wayne (Martin Henderson), the proprietor of a grimy Houston strip joint looking to get rich quick just ahead of the video revolution. On board as talent is the club’s number one girl, Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), her “sometimes” boyfriend Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), and the young upstart Maxine (Mia Goth), all of whom are rarin’ to go. There to document the proceedings is RJ (Owen Campbell), who along with his girlfriend/boom operator Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), believes that he’s making art, while everyone else is perfectly happy making smut.
They’ve rented a guesthouse on an old, dilapidated farm from octogenarian veteran Howard (Stephen Ure), who doesn’t like the sight of them, but desperately needs the money. He has no idea what they are up to, but his wife soon finds out and reacts poorly. What started as a weekend of fun, frolic, and f*&%in’ turns into a nightmare and these horny sinners make not make it out alive.
Running at a somewhat indulgent hour and forty-five minutes, X is a bit more character heavy than your typical slasher, but West really make that extra screen time work for him here. Every character in this very contained story is very well-rounded, there are arcs within arcs, interpersonal conflicts and resolutions, as well as mini catastrophes and full character turns before the bloodshed even begins. The audience knows where the story is going, but we aren’t in any particular rush to get there because we enjoy getting to know these flawed, ambitious characters so much that it’s going to be sad to see them go. But go they must, and when the shit hits the fan, it’s a full tilt sprint to the finish that is sure to please slasher fans.
Once the turn happens, it is a gloriously crimson affair, with lots of acts of close-up brutal violence, the kind that studio films often shy away from even in their bloodiest offerings. Stabbing, shooting, and smashing are all on the agenda, and almost every instance is luxuriantly photographed for our sadistic viewing pleasure. In a film whose entire premise is kind of grimy to begin with, these moments really seal the deal, we are in a dirty movie, just perhaps not the one we signed up for.
When it comes to the sex, West and his cast don’t skimp either. There is a respect for the work and the people making it, an appreciation of those who were passionate about it, even though they know they are being exploited, they are also using it for their own ends. Snow and Goth are particularly entertaining to watch as they shed their inhibitions and really go for it, in a way, it’s kind of wholesome how this film treats romance and sex like it’s actually something to be enjoyed rather than punished. For this slasher it’s a perfect mix of titillation and liberation that just plain works.
In fact, it is the whole thrust – pun intended – for the final third of the film, and having spent so much time with this cast, we actually do care when they start to fall. At the same time, the motivations for these increasingly savage acts of violence are well developed and almost sweet in an odd way, leaving this viewer more empathetic to the villains than I expected to be. However, in the end, this movie knows exactly what it is and what it must do, and West commits to the premise, for which the audience benefits in spades.
Every couple of years the slasher is declared dead. It’s been happening since 1982, and I expect it’ll continue to be the film business’s dirty little shame long after I’ve departed this earth. The truth is that the slasher never died, it’s evolved, it’s occasionally gone into hibernation for a couple of years, but there’s always something that reminds us that this formula has value. There is a reason we love watching, and X understands and captures the spirit of those early classics beautifully, building on the greats that have gone before while adding the kind of intricate character work that places this film firmly among contemporary filmmaking traditions. X is a barn burner of a movie; sexy, bloody, funny, poignant in a way, and non-stop fun. Don’t miss out on seeing this one with a crowd, you’ll be glad you did.