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X (18)

Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West

Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow

Review: David Stephens

Mention the name of director Ti West to a dedicated horror fan, and you'll get a grin of approval, followed by tales of how much they enjoyed The House of the Devil (2009) and the much-loved The Innkeepers (2011). For our money, the superbly constructed found-footage film The Sacrament (2013) is also a cracking offering from him. However, those not sampling these retro-horror delights at festivals or home media are likely to be unfamiliar with his work and know him from directing episodes of many recent broadcast series such as The Exorcist, Wayward Pines, Outcast, or Them. With his last feature film being back in 2016 (In a Valley of Violence), it's damned good to see this collaboration with the A24 entertainment company, which has gained a solid reputation for supporting original horror at the cinema. It stars a trio of actors with form in genre flicks, namely Mia Goth (Suspiria, A Cure for Wellness, etc.), Jenna Ortega (Scream '22, Studio 666, etc.), and Brittany Snow (Would you Rather, Prom Night, etc.). After good advance word during SXSW, the film is now screening at both UK and US cinemas, so we took a look at its X-appeal. 

In 1979 a group of wannabe porn stars leave the city and journey into the rural bible-belt territory. They consist of happy-go-lucky chancers such as Maxine (Goth), Wayne (Martin Henderson channelling Matthew McConoughey's spirit), and Bobby-Lynne (Snow). They arrive at a dilapidated farmhouse, where the grounds contain a boarding house and barn, which they aim to use as the set for their blue movie masterpiece ("The Farmer's Daughters"). The farm owners are an elderly couple called Howard and Pearl, who have no idea what the group is really up to. However, once the filming starts, the screaming isn't far behind it… 

What we basically have here is Boogie Nights vs Texas Chainsaw, in tone if not in content. And it's great. One character makes a point of saying that it is possible to make a "good dirty movie", and West has made a good exploitation horror. Whilst keeping to the 70s formula as much as possible, with gratuitous nudity and wince-worthy gore, he has subverted expectations and given depth and likeability to the characters. It takes a somewhat rose-tinted view of the nascent perve-maestros, having the female characters embody strong independence and intelligence, whereas the guys are not total douche-bags (for the most part). Apart from the staged bonking and some coke-taking, they are wholesome enough to participate in evening sing-songs and show more humanity to others than the scripture quoting nutjobs in evidence.  

West knows his horror and is aware that his target audience does as well. So look out for homages to such classics as "Jaws", "Psycho", "Death Trap", "Texas Chainsaw", and … err … "Debbie Does Dallas". But this slanted take on retro revulsion isn't simply a rip-off of old tropes. They are there, but they're twisted into unexpected forms. The horror element is teased for nearly half the film before the blood hits the fan, although a run-over cow corpse foreshadows it in an early scene. Once it starts, though, it goes full throttle with throat, stabs, eye piercings, hand-mangling, and a lot more. This all comes from an unlikely but feasible set-up that turns convention on its head in a way that is both disturbing and amusing. One late sex scene manages to be touching, uncomfortable, hilarious, and traumatic… all at the same time!

This is all supported by some really great performances as well. Goth has given her best turn in a horror movie so far, whereas Snow, Ortega, Henderson, Kid Cudi, Stephen Ure, and the whole cast all deliver nuanced moments. The actors who portray Howard and Pearl deserve some real kudos (*taps nose and winks mysteriously*), and the script is smart with killer moments punctuated by sly one-liners ("Now, that's divine intervention", "How the Hell should I know?", etc.). Not forgetting the occasional meta-moment ("I bet it's one fucked-up horror movie"). Some mention should also be given to the brilliant soundtrack, which uses everything from Robert Palmer to Stevie Nicks. It also contains one of the best uses of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" in horror for ages. Additionally, the creepy ambient score also ramps up the effectiveness of the darker moments. 

Substantial recognition must be given to the excellent cinematic editing throughout the film. From the 70s patented screen-wipes to sequences being intercut or smashed together, and the use of split-screen or alternative sequences that show mirroring events. It really works as a good piece of film-making and an offbeat horror with some comedic moments of nastiness. Little wonder it's got 95% on RT as we write this. The realist in us knows it won't be a box-office hit, but it deserves to get the recognition that Malignant and Hereditary did. The first horror classic of 2022. Go, West!

Subversive, cheeky, and occasionally creepy, this is first-class retro horror with a genre director at the top of his form. It works well because it incorporates modern themes into what should be tired or dated cliches and doesn't hold back on slyness and discomfort. Sex and violence, but not as we know it. Well made and good fun … and watch out for the prequel!
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