Directed by Ti West
I’ve not seen much of anything by Ti West before... just a couple of short segments of portmanteau horror films V/H/S (reviewed here) and The ABCs Of Death (reviewed by me here) and, I honestly don’t remember either of them making an impression on me. That being said, I’m certainly going to have to play catch up with this particular director because, what we have in the case of X is a very well put together movie in a genre that, I really don’t usually enjoy all that much.
And by that last comment, to explain, X is really not a horror movie... it’s a slasher film. I know many people, especially those who believe that slasher movies are somehow horror movies, would disagree with me here but, honestly, it doesn’t have the necessary genre tropes to make it into the area of horror for me (for further clarification on my thoughts about the genre here, check out a review of a book purporting to be about Italian Horror Cinema which I have scheduled to go up on the blog in a week or two). I’m pretty sure the director would disagree with me here too... especially since it’s stated by one of his characters in the movie that Hitchcock’s Psycho is a horror movie (it isn’t, it’s a straight thriller folks!). And if there’s one genre of cinema I’m not very interested in it’s the American slasher movie... which is possibly quite ironic considering I love Italian gialli but, well, there you have it.
I decided to see this one, however, because I found the hook of it being set in 1979 and being about a group of six people who rent out a cabin to shoot a porn movie, well... irresistible. And then, as it turns out, it’s so well shot and executed that, well, I certainly didn’t regret my decision.
I’m not going to sum up the modicum of a plot because the fact that I’ve told you it’s a slasher combined with the other information in my previous paragraph pretty much tells you all you need to know. And, also, I don’t want to be accused of spoilers on this one, although I’m sure veterans of the slasher genre will probably see every set piece coming, for sure... but that doesn’t matter.
The film opens very strongly and had me from the start, by almost parodying the opening camera placement of John Ford’s The Searchers to some extent, by having the camera looking out from behind the doorway of a cabin to the main house across the way as a police car slowly pulls into view and joins some others. However, what this opening shot also serves to do it set up in the mind the 4:3 aspect ratio of television and home video formats of the time period, because the sides of the screen around the opening of the cabin (or possibly it’s the barn, which also features in the story) are almost completely black, setting up that aspect ratio in your mind. The director than further pulls the audience into the world by zooming the camera in closer to the exterior view, causing the black vertical bands to disappear off the sides and bringing us into the widescreen format. Then, using a blend of static shots and slow camera movements which inform the whole film, we are taken on a tour of the bloody aftermath of an incident which has taken place at some point (without being shown any of the details). And then we flashback to 24 hours before, with stripper and budding porn actress Maxine, played by the always watchable Mia Goth, getting ready to go with her producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), sound girl Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), director for hire RJ (Owen Campbell) and fellow porn actors Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Kid Cudi) to the site of the shoot.
The two octogenarian antagonists of the film are Howard (Stephen Ure) and his wife Pearl (played again, in a dual role, by Mia Goth, who stayed on with Ti West at the location to film the prequel movie, Pearl, when X had finished shooting). Actually, when I figured out it was Goth behind the old age make up (one of my big problems with movies which use old age make up is that they always look fake), I figured that the film would steer into horror territory by the end of the story, expecting some kind of Elisabeth Bathory style twist reveal to the character but, alas, there is no story content reliant on the casting. Even so, Goth does a really good turn as the old lady who causes so much trouble for the young film-makers of the piece, it has to be said.
The film has a nice 1970s vibe to it, while still maintaining a clean, crisp look to the proceedings. It’s straight, no filter, as the saying goes but it does emulate the 1970s feel in other ways, such as using a wipe at one point and also, quite often, using that fast crosscutting into and out of the next scene and then back again and repeat... which I kinda hate but, heck, he seemed to do it in a, slightly, more palatable way than when Dennis Hopper used the same technnique in Easy Rider so, yeah, nicely done.
There are some other things which he does too which are very interesting. For example, shooting some of the shots from very low down angles and then just throwing them into the edit alongside shots taken at eye level, somehow without managing to pop the viewer out of the movie in a jarring manner. It all flows pretty well. There are some nice split screen moments too, when West pushes the method and actually has characters and situations switching sides of the split frame and, in one wonderful case, the same things overlapping to make a single image but just slightly out of kilter on the angle (or the way it’s been spliced in) and I thought this looked pretty cool.
Another interesting thing he does is subvert the visual syntax of the film via the audiences familiarity of the medium. For instance, a 4:3 shot from the porn movie the actors are shooting might follow on or precede a shot of another character somewhere else but, it will still be exactly the next follow on shot the subconscious mind is expecting it to be, just with a different character and in a different aspect ratio. And, yeah, once I’d got the hang of that after he’d done it a couple of times, I'd say I was having a good time with the way the material had been edited too.
Now, in terms of jump scares... there are a couple of good ones but none of them relating to the set piece kills. Frankly, if you are reasonably cine-literate, you’re going to see all the kills coming before they happen (you don’t go looking through holes in barn doors and you don’t poke your hand through a hacked out door panel to reach around for the lock, for example). Now, in many of the cases, I’m pretty sure this is done intentionally by the director, who seems to delight in getting away with well worn clichés and, well.. he gets away with them perhaps but I don’t think the average viewer will have any surprises and, honestly, I’m not so sure all of the kills (perhaps the final one where one of Mia Goth’s characters takes out the other one) are supposed to be as obvious. There was one moment that annoyed me because, there’s a famous Lucio Fulci ocular gore moment in Zombi 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) where it totally looks fake and, frankly, a similar sequence here didn’t look any better. However, even with the fake looking effects, the movie was quite fun in the execution of them and I still had a good time with most of it, to be fair. And the artistic decision during the first stab scene to suddenly have the assailant and the victim bathed in red lightning for the remainder of the shot, to emphasise the idea of blood in an almost Dario Argento/Mario Bava non-sequitur lighting manner, was actually very impressive.
One last thing... the score for the film by Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe also was quite 1970s/1980s in its approach and I quite enjoyed what they did with it here. I mean, it’s not so blatant as, say, the Disasterpeace score for It Follows (reviewed here) but, yeah, it did remind me of something like, say, The Amityville Horror to a certain extent and I thought it was subtly done. Alas, the score has not been released as a proper CD, merely a substitute electronic download, so it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to hear it away from the movie anytime soon, it would seem.
But, yeah, that’s me done with X and, I have to say, it was so much better than I thought it was and, despite my aversion to the slasher genre, I have to admire the film for what the director and the rest of the cast and crew managed to achieve here. This was definitely the first feature I’ve seen directed by West so, yeah, now I’m going to have to go back and catch some of his other movies, for sure. Very much worth a look!