Paying homage to classic slashers such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, recent A24 film X delivers a few modern tropes in combination with a 70s atmosphere that many horror fans are nostalgic about—with a more risqué premise.
A group of adult actors head out to rural Texas in an attempt to make the best porno of their career—right in the advent of the home video industry. In a time where pornography isn’t widely consumed yet, producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) spots a gap in the market, hoping to evolve his own, his girlfriend and actor Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) into ones filled with lavishness. The rest of the crew and cast consist of actors Bobby-Lynne and Jackson Hole (Brittany Snow and Kid Cudi), along with director RJ Nichols and his girlfriend Lorraine (Owen Campbell and Jenna Ortega) who helps him with filming. Upon arriving at the designated location that Wayne has rented out, the crew meets with the owner Howard (Stephen Ure). Unaware of the actual reason they’ve rented out the place, he’s already developed a dislike for their presence – and from then on the film exudes an impending sense of doom.
While sex in horror is nothing new, X utilizes an eccentric film-within-a-film narrative that doesn’t shy away from sex as a tool highlighting the normalization of female sexuality as well as the “American Dream”. Maxine Minx lets the audience know of her ambitions and dreams, gazing at the mirror and saying, “I am a sex symbol.” And this is where the more contemporary motif comes in: instead of using sexuality as a means to justify the characters’ punishment as a lot of other 70s slasher horror movies do, the film subverts certain expectations and does not quite follow the formula of the subgenre. Sexuality is something that is neither depicted as a stigma nor something that is celebrated – it is just something that is; it’s neutral and it exists, and both negative positive outcomes may coincide with each other.
In addition to the focus on pornography, director Ti West emphasizes the actual process of filmmaking, particularly for independent creators. RJ might come across as your average “film bro,” however the film makes it clear that any type of filmmaking requires a certain craft that makes it intriguing for the audience, be it pornography or other genres. While the rest of the cast does not care as much about this aspect, they still take their roles seriously in their pursuit of making a mark in the newfangled industry of home videos.
Howard and his wife Pearl gradually reveal their backstory, and they are depicted in such a way that underlines an uncanny and ominous ambience using the editing and angles. The stark contrast between the ages of the couple and the group of renters also foreground their experiences of youth, sin and religion. With Maxine’s escape from her small conservative hometown, Pearl sees a reflection of herself as the young woman she once was, or rather – wanted to be, and resents Maxine for being a beautiful, youthful and confident woman who is not afraid of her sexuality.
The character development that occurs throughout the film is surprisingly pleasant and conspicuous. A bunch of annoying characters initially, they develop multidimensional traits that go beyond their caricature-like appearance. With a sprinkle of a few clichés encapsulated in a modern concept of a slasher, X still successfully hones in on all the gory fun slasher fans love.