The horror genre has come a long way.
The 1970s were defined by low-budget slasher films like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, while the ’80s saw the proliferation of weirder, more elaborate supernatural horror flicks like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead II, and Poltergeist. The ’90s then produced more tongue-in-cheek, meta-horror exercises like Scream, The Faculty, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, while the 2010s and 2020s have seen a surge in “elevated” horror films simultaneously more ambitious and tamer than is typical of the genre.
X isn’t like that. The Ti West-directed, A24-produced 2022 horror movie is a send-up of 1970s slasher flicks that delights in being as foul as possible. It’s a film that argues for the importance of trashy, hyperviolent slasher thrillers that have, like big-budget rom-coms and R-rated studio comedies, become increasingly hard to come by. Even better, it does so with unadulterated, bloody gusto.
Set in the late 1970s, X follows a group of young actors and filmmakers as they drive out to a secluded farm in Texas to secretly shoot an adult film. Their plans are disrupted when they catch the attention of the farm’s elderly owners, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth), who take issue with the attitude and sexual freedom of their young guests. Pearl, meanwhile, finds herself enamored by Maxine (Goth, pulling double duty), an aspiring adult film star with dreams of big-time stardom.
It isn’t long before Maxine’s friends and coworkers begin to disappear under mysterious circumstances. X only spans one day and night, but West’s screenplay doesn’t waste a second of the film’s limited timeframe. An odd, underlying sense of danger permeates its sun-soaked first half, which is jam-packed with details that come into play again in its increasingly violent, middle-of-the-night second.
X doesn’t hold back when it comes to blood and bone-crunching violence. Whether it’s one character’s painful, prolonged decapitation or a moonlit alligator attack, its back half is full of kills that range from unsettlingly grisly to absurdly over-the-top. Despite that fact, West never loses control of the film’s playful yet acidic tone. There’s a sly knowingness coursing throughout it that makes it easier to accept even its most cartoonish moments, and the film also boasts an infectious energy thanks to the excitement West and his cast members (including Gen Z scream queen Jenna Ortega) clearly felt while they were making it.
On paper, X shouldn’t work. It’s a 2020s film set in the 1970s and so full of nods to movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining that it should come across as nothing more than cheap pastiche. Through Goth’s old, embittered Pearl, though, West is able to cleverly tie X’s throwback style to themes that seem genuinely provocative when juxtaposed against all of the film’s obvious influences.
Its exploration of Pearl’s sexual desires and how they fuel her envy for her younger counterparts allows the movie to not only pay homage to the anti-sex narratives present in so many 20th-century slasher films, but also build upon them in ways few of the classics that inspired it do. Goth’s Maxine, meanwhile, emerges as a sex-positive counter to X’s older villains, one whose youthful confidence makes her an unlikely force to be reckoned with.
West uses X’s characters, story, and style to both honor horror’s cinematic past and modernize one of its biggest subgenres. In doing so, he proves that modern slashers can be just as mean and nasty as their ’70s and ’80s predecessors, while still seeming refreshing and new.