Is Ti West’s long-awaited return to horror a triumph or a tragedy?
For one that sometimes gives the impression writer-director Ti West was going down a checklist of things he could include to get boycotted by as many ‘concerned citizens’ groups as possible, X is a very careful film.
You’ve got fairly graphic depictions of sex, pornography, violence and gore, peppered with themes of religious transgression and sexual liberation, and yet X feels restrained, deliberate. It doesn’t feel like a juvenile prodding of people’s sensibilities without thought, but rather a considered and witty juxtaposition of sex and violence, arguably the two things that tantalize and terrify us day-to-day the most.
That’s all perhaps a bit too fancy a description of the film though, because is a heaping barrel of fun. The story unravels at a fantastic pace, hitting you with perfectly timed escalations and revelations, and propelled in between with some amusing dialogue, solid acting, and intriguing camerawork.
West seems to be a fan of 70s and 80s low budget horror, and a learned one at that, because he can play all of the beats out perfectly, just the way he did in his earlier film, The House of the Devil. In some ways this feels like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre film we deserved this year, as opposed to the godawful Netflix reboot we actually got.
Your mileage may vary in how disturbing you find the film, but I’m willing to bet it’s more tame than whatever you’re imagining. The way you react to taboo-busting creepiness like this will also affect the way you view the film. There were just as many giggles in my screening as gasps and stunned silences, all at the same time.
Personally, I wouldn’t describe it as particular scary or tense but that’s clearly not West’s goal here – X errs more towards black comedy than anything else. This is the kind of hide-behind-your eyes film where the gore is telegraphed a mile away, and part of the fun is the release of easy tension when the inevitable arrives.
After all, there’s an awful lot of similarity between dramatic foreshadowing and the structure of joke, with set-up, reminders, and payoff. In X, it feels like both, and more importantly, it feels intentional. The first act places so many Chekov’s guns on the wall, but the third fires every one of them. Some are more satisfying than others, but the satisfaction of a story coming together this well is its own, greater kind of satisfaction.
X is chock full of humour throughout, in fact. Not in the laugh out loud traditional jokey sense, but in a wry, clever kind of way. For the most part anyway – for the first half this is a film about an amateur porno being filmed so there’s plenty of pretty great dick jokes throughout.
But elsewhere, the joke seems to be one about self-awareness, and the ironic similarities between porn and horror. The director/cameraman character, keen to make the first arthouse porn film, argues for taking an avant-garde approach to editing. The others urge him to sit back and just “show them what they want to see”.
This comes right alongside West combining classic (read, tired) slasher fiction tropes with a unique editing style wherein the scenes cut back and forth between each other five or six times before settling on the next one. It’s all very meta, and thankfully not in an obnoxious way.
All in all, there’s cleverness and fun to be found in nearly every element of X, and it’s not just a great twist on the slasher genre, it’s a brilliantly-made film full-stop. Here’s to seeing more from Ti West when the surprise prequel comes out soon!
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