Ti West's slasher throwback is too scattershot to be frightening, too fascinating to ignore

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Ti West is good at silence. There’s a great sequence in his satanic panic flick The House of the Devil in which broke college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), having taken a suspicious “babysitting” job watching a very old woman upstairs, don’t even worry about it, dances around the living room of this not-empty house as her Walkman blares away in her ears. It’s an agonizing scene to sit through, eyes darting at every corner of the frame in search of danger.  

West’s latest, X, is a slasher with a few such moments of quiet dread, but is too crowded to let any one breathe. Consider a bird’s eye shot of an alligator languidly, purposefully making its way toward a blissed-out swimmer in the middle of a pond, more winking nod to countless gator features (the American Cinematheque’s recent reptilian retrospective, as it happens, left out my favorite, the Australian Black Water, though compensates with the lean Crawl) than genuine suspense builder. We already see the danger. It’s surface level.

It’s 1979, and a barest of bones film crew ventures into the Texan backwoods to shoot an adult film called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” Silver tongued producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) has rented a guest cabin belonging to elderly couple Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth), without disclosing said cabin’s intended use. X isn’t quite about the exuberance/financial terror of producing a zero budget film, though Wayne’s deception reminds me in the reverse of the bit in Baadasssss! when the production of Melvin Van Peebles’s Blaxploitation classic bypasses red tape by passing itself off as a porn shoot. 

But then X isn’t quite about pornography, either, despite its title. When the film’s pompous auteur RJ (Owen Campbell) rambles about applying the avant-garde to adult entertainment, it’s meant to induce eye-rolls, and later he reveals himself as a hypocrite when he freaks out over boom mic operator/girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega, previously menaced in Scream 5) expressing interest in appearing in front of the camera. Despite some throwaway references to mainstream crossovers Deep Throat and Debbie Does Dallas, the film never seriously considers filmmakers like Fred Halsted who were attempting to make legitimate art out of what was dismissed as smut (Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself eventually found its way into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). This isn’t The Deuce; X doesn’t delve into the socioeconomic evolution of 1970s porn.   

What X really digs into is intergenerational empathy, or lack thereof. Early in the film free spirited actress Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) offhandedly dismisses the notion of the elderly as sexual beings, and later Vietnam veteran turned stud Jackson (Scott Mescudi) condescends to likewise veteran Howard about crawling through mud. The young crew’s revolution is reserved for the looming specter of time and their own mortality. 

Critics have emphasized X’s debt to grimy classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was already pornographically parodied in Jim Powers’s Texas Dildo Masquerade. I know this (and can’t unknow this) courtesy of Robin Bougie’s exploitation magazine Cinema Sewer, which delights in the kind of retro filth West likely consulted when researching for X. Flipping through the pages, there’s a sense of lawlessness and misogynistic rage to 1970s fringe cinema that’s been scrubbed from contemporary throwbacks like Grindhouse (Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving trailer is the most mean-spirited of the bunch, and perhaps the most accurate). Rob Zombie said something to the effect of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre having the unhinged quality of being made by genuine crazy people, and indeed its legendarily miserable, injury-abound production history lends something to that. X, with its conscientious use of an onset intimacy coordinator, is very much the work of sane people. Polished and deliberate, X lacks the ragged danger of the films that inspired it, but maybe that’s for the best.

X (2022)

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPA Rating: R

Streaming: Currently in theaters

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Myles Mikulic holds a BA in Film and TV from Cal State University Northridge, an MA in History and Archival Studies from Claremont Graduate University, and is a History doctoral candidate at the same....