X is a horrible, nasty, disgusting little movie. Let me tell you why I like it.
Ti West is a director that I’ve been following for years – The Innkeepers, his 2011 low-key haunted house horror, was how I first came across him, but it was his range that kept me coming back for more. The cigarette-stained House of the Devil is one of the best modern Satanic Panic movies to date, while The Sacrament is a genuinely unsettling found footage nightmare played effectively and impressively straight. He’s worked outside of the horror genre – his 2016 Western In The Valley of Violence is worth a watch – but it’s his exploratory, entertaining, loving genre work that really keeps me coming back for more.
But it’s been nearly ten years since his last foray into the horror genre, with The Sacrament in 2013, and God, I’ve been missing him around these spooky parts. Enter X, his 2022 release, starring Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega (making quite the name for herself as a scream queen after starring in, well, Scream earlier this year), a return to the genre for West, and, on top of it, a bloody good exploitation flick to boot.
Following a collection of would-be porn stars heading off to shoot a dirty movie in a rental property in the South in the late 1970s, X has that wonderful Ti West trademark of serving referential horror without slavish adherence to tropes or specific styles. It’s clearly drawn from the classic exploitation flick, hell, that’s basically what the characters in this movie are making, but West doesn’t use that as an excuse to spend most of the film shooting sweaty-palmed close-ups of his leading actresses. It’s got that dirt-under-the-nails feeling that good rural horror should have, but with the polish of a director who clearly knows how to tune cinematic language to his key.
It’s a movie about movie-making, but mostly so that it can take some backhanded swipes at the Serious Cinematic Man behind the on-screen camera (a really fun performance from Owen Campbell helps a whole lot with that). Mia Goth is both final girl and ultimate villain in a dual role performance that brings out the best of her strange, spiky screen presence, while Brittany Snow and Martin Henderson embody a slightly sleazy Southern charm down to a tee.
And I think what I like about it most of all is the way it refuses to try to Elevate this horror into something self-conciously prestige. Horror as a genre has been edging its way into mainstream critical success and adulation for the past half-decade or so, and that’s a great thing – I love to see the way that the genre has finally gotten some damn respect for a change – but we as horror fans and creators would be lying if we said some of the grit and grossness and salaciousness wasn’t what drew us to this world in the first place.
X knows that, and loves it. Revels in it, even. This is a horror movie about a porn film, for goodness sake, and it isn’t afraid to lean in to that grimy, shocking, ridiculously entertaining exploitation horror without papering a point over it to make it a little more legitimate. Ti West brings his enormous skill behind the camera to polish up this classic of the horror genre into something genuinely brilliant – but doesn’t forget where the likes of X comes from in the process. It’s nasty, it’s filthy, it’s dirty, it’s fun, and it isn’t afraid to enjoy every second of that.
By Lou MacGregor
(header image via Variety)