Audiences never hear the roar of a chainsaw during X—but there’s no mistaking its spiritual inspiration. Or at least, one of them.

Ti West’s amateur porn horror film is among the most hotly anticipated premieres at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas. The setup could not be more familiar: Six young and (mostly) beautiful people road trip to a remote farmhouse in Texas to shoot an amateur skin flick. Their hosts? An elderly couple whose nightmarishly withered faces instantly recall the grandpa from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and whose behavior toward their overnight boarders grows ever more alarming over time. Let the bloodbath begin!

X is a throwback to grainy ’70s horror, particularly Tobe Hooper’s genre-defining slasher. It’s also a meditation on repression, desire, and revulsion—the arbitrary societal rules that dictate what (and who) has value, and the damage reaped upon ourselves by internalizing those limitations.

Most of all, however, X is a hell of a good time.

Mia Goth, whose horror credits include the Suspiria remake and A Cure for Wellness, plays Maxine—a coke-snorting burlesque dancer who is hellbent on becoming a bona fide star. Her boyfriend Wayne (a deliciously sleazy Martin Henderson) is producing the porno, which he hopes will allow them all to get rich off a revolutionary new technology called home video. Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi AKA Kid Cudi steal the show as bottle-blonde bombshell Bobby-Lynne and her “sometimes” boyfriend, porn actor Jackson.

And then there’s the behind-the-scenes crew: Jenna Ortega, a rising horror star with stunning performances in Netflix’s You and this year’s Scream, plays boom mic operator Lorraine. Her boyfriend, the film’s greasy, blowhard director RJ (Owen Campbell), appears to have dragged her along for the ride. Lorraine’s shifting relationship with the production becomes a driving force behind the film—and by the end, RJ comes to seriously regret calling her a prude during the van ride over.

RJ is a bit of a heel. He spends most of X verbally masturbating to his own aspirations for this film, telling anyone who will listen that his porno is going to be different. “You can make a good dirty movie,” he insists. Never mind that no one on the crew except him and possibly Lorraine have ever thought otherwise.

West’s script deftly explores the cultural mores that define both horror and pornography as “trash.” The film opens on a broadcast from a televangelist barking about Satan’s looming presence on this mortal coil, his rabid followers nodding along. Lorraine’s awkward silence throughout the shoot sparks a (pretty great, actually?) lecture from Bobby-Lynne, Maxine, and Jackson about the relationship between sexual repression and broader social oppression.

X runs thick with homage, but it never feels derivative. Its influences extend well beyond ’70s slashers and include M. Night Shyamalan (think: The Visit and Old) and Alfred Hitchcock (specifically, Psycho) alongside many others. But West has plenty to say on his own, both thematically and visually. These allusions do not feel like lazy substitutions for creativity but instead accentuate the director’s own flourishes. (One of the most dread-inducing moments involves an unwitting slow-speed alligator chase, shot from a bird’s eye view, that foreshadows some of the best gore to come.)

It also helps that each and every performance in this film is fantastic. Snow’s shamelessly sexual bombshell Bobby-Lynne is a perpetual delight, and Cudi brings effortless cool as her scene partner. Ortega continues her horror hot streak here, and as her pretentious boyfriend, Campbell is properly obnoxious—almost pitiable. And Henderson, with his cowboy swagger, makes a natural ringleader.

Snow’s shamelessly sexual bombshell Bobby-Lynne is a perpetual delight, and Cudi brings effortless cool as her scene partner. Ortega continues her horror hot streak here, and as her pretentious boyfriend, Campbell is properly obnoxious—almost pitiable.

But the undeniable star of the show is Goth, who slowly dials up the intensity with each scene. Throughout the proceedings, Goth weaves in quiet clues that there’s something about her character we might not know. Even more significant: She actually brings two roles to life in this film. In addition to Maxine, she also plays Pearl—one half of the unnerving elderly couple who own the farm. It would be impossible to explain the reason for this dual role without spoiling the fun, but suffice it to say that it’s more than a stunt.

Oddly enough, given its command and understanding of the slasher genre, a couple of the kills are the only real letdown. While some characters meet their demise in ways that will make audiences cackle with glee, other deaths feel a little underwhelming, either in concept or execution. At times I found myself wishing for just one more twist of the knife—or that the camera had lingered just a little longer.

The film’s most clever maneuver, however, is bringing all of its thematic threads to bear through its central villain—whose depravity stems not from their own (natural, normal) desires but from their rejection, both on a personal and societal level. As fun as most of the gory set pieces in this accomplished slasher might be, it’s scariest when one considers the possibility that our aging villain’s problems could one day become our own. (Although hopefully we’d respond at least a little differently.)



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