Ti West’s new film recaptures the essence of contemporary horror movies with an extraordinary tale of old age, fear and sex
There is a very fine line between a tribute and a replica. In times of inordinate nostalgia and a strange need to recreate the past, many other horror films use the excuse that they are working within a particular genre in order to justify doing things the same old way. Those that succeed in taking things to a higher level are the ones who understand that you can update or carry on with an earlier style and still put a new spin on its time-tested tropes.
This is the case of X, a true gem from screenwriter and director Ti West that achieves the magic of invoking the classics (not only The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but also Friday the 13th, The Last House on the Left and the ground-breaking North American indie films of the 70s) while also establishing its own identity based on a harsh but pertinent meditation on gender and on socio-political deconstruction, which is one of its core strengths.
West throws out the rules on practically everything – from the conventions around the heroines of the “slasher” (the “final girl”, which the wonderful Mia Goth plays to perfection) to the motives of the theoretical monsters of the movie. The thing is that, in addition to being a superlative show of suspense and terror, X provides one of the most lucid commentaries of its genre on old age, the tyranny of time, and the fear of fading into oblivion. Without going into details, let’s just say that it manages to achieve some unusual things, like making you understand horror without justifying it, and having an unhealthy romantic urge in the middle of a spree of violence that leaves you shell-shocked.
X begins with a handful of “slashers” from the era of reference. A group of men and women take a road trip to a house in rural America to shoot a porn film that’s meant to save them from anonymity and deliver a better future. The man who rents them the house is rather weird and wary, and his wife, who has an almost ghostly appearance, observes them from afar. Even when using only subtle hints rather than outright reveals, West creates an atmosphere of tension as relentless as it is stifling. Everything that happens in a scene (even the way it is shot – this is one of the cases in which the framing “explains” things, as was the case with the great works of the 70s) offers a possible catharsis, of an outbreak of violence with the same intensity as the film, which itself rises in tone.
In this sense, the director makes very appropriate use of transitions and crosscuts, creating overall a very powerful synergy between two worlds destined to collide. But as mentioned, this is not just about creating the context for an (excellent) dissolve so brutal it leaves you breathless. This film has been shot very thoughtfully and brims with a brooding sensitivity – there is a whole treatise about fears, self-integrity and self-image, on using sex as a weapon, and the burdens of a society that punishes you for growing old. West manages to move, amuse and terrify all in one sequence. You fear the monster while wondering if, deep down, you are one yourself, or if you are somehow to blame for their deviance. X pays the best possible homage to this genre because it gives it back its ability to address important contemporary issues. That’s what makes it a must-see.