X review – back-to-basics slasher pits porn stars against elderly killers | Horror films

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The ascent of so-called “elevated horror”, a nonsense term vaguely referring to a loose collection of films that smack of the highbrow in a way that your average down-and-dirty murder-fest does not, has yielded a handful of strong entries. But the flip side of that blood-flecked coin has been an increased privileging of subtext over text, as the most dreary of the bunch get bogged down in their smarty-pants metaphors at the cost of the genre’s more immediate pleasures. Too many perfectly good premises have been squandered, so busy pondering the lingering effects of trauma that they forget to scare the bejesus out of their viewers.

With its unabashed focus on bodies, luring us in with their nudity before hacking them into tiny pieces, the back-to-basics slasher X arrives as a bold rebuke to all things staid and dignified. When a film-maker opens their movie with a van’s worth of fresh-faced 70s porn stars stopping for an ominous gas-up at a petrol station en route to a secluded house in the woods, a promise is made. There will be skin, and then we’ll get to watch as it’s lacerated. West delivers on that unspoken compact and then some, generally with a winning spirit of invention and inspiration calibrated for maximum audience response. If there’s a deeper meaning at play in this face-off between the merry band of degenerates and the fundamentalist oldsters picking them off, it concerns the freedom to indulge in all things prurient and lurid without shame, a god-given right exercised in gleeful fashion here. Art, trash, prestige – these are all just words, and they’re holding us back.

As stated by RJ (Owen Campbell), the director and camera operator on film-within-the-film The Farmer’s Daughters, sex and violence don’t cancel out merit. He explains that creative editing strategies and cinematography can class up even the lowest-rent subject matter, an overbearing bit of reflexive commentary typical of the script’s tendency to veer from clever to self-satisfied. (If you have already name-checked Psycho, nicking its car-in-the-swamp shot is just double dipping.) But the point stands, proven by the accomplished sleaze of this period homage. A star-spangled title card announces that it’s 1979, and the decade’s horror classics fill West’s formal playbook. In its woozily-composed wide shots and stutters of cross-cutting that form a messy suture between scenes, his technique makes for a far savvier Texas Chainsaw Massacre than last month’s reboot on Netflix. There’s a perverse, playful quality to the finest set pieces, as in the aerial shot watching with indifference while an alligator stalks an oblivious Maxine (Mia Goth).

The up-and-coming actor has her sights set on a life of fame and fortune, egged on by her boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson), who also happens to be the producer of their shoestring operation. His studly leading man is Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi, rocking little more than a magnificent Afro and his taut buttocks), coming soon to a social media feed near you for his out-of-nowhere acoustic guitar cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide. Also in tow is his lover and scene partner Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and the crew’s black sheep Lorraine (Jenna Ortega). RJ’s girlfriend and boom operator, she’s got a few reservations about being party to smut-peddling, a friction that the writing never quite figures out how to use. All the furtive rutting rouses the suspicions of the fossils renting out the cabin on their farm, whose pious repression drives them to kill, as if illustrating what happens without a healthy diet of sin.

As villains, they are not all that chilling unto themselves; the climax’s suggestion that the ultimate vision of horror is naked old people is neither new nor persuasive. Even so, they’ve got the moves, guided by the confident hand of West’s direction. He flashes the proficiency in blocking for suspense that has been in short supply since 2009’s The House of the Devil, another effort to evoke the golden age of gutbucket horror. In both cases, he comes up short only in texture. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre still feels like a relic from a lost civilization, and the winky final lines of X reach for that same air of discovering something we were never meant to see. The look is just a touch too polished for that, however, far removed from the high-contrast coarseness of your given grindhouse programming.

Though the qualifications are piling up like so many corpses, they don’t really get in the way of the good time West has prioritized. He vocally sets his goal as a meat-and-potatoes slice-and-dice, and even offers a solid defense of that as a legitimate aspiration. This isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, but a reminder of why the wheel became the industry standard in the first place. And in this instance, that wheel is being used to crush a human skull until it explodes like a rotten honeydew.



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