Home Feature news 'X' review: A fresh, hot take on '70s slashers comes with a...

‘X’ review: A fresh, hot take on ’70s slashers comes with a tired old trope

Like all good pornos, A24’s hotly anticipated new horror-comedy, X, knows exactly what you came for.

Unloading bloody money shot after even bloodier money shot, this gore-fest with tits also finds thrilling new ways to subvert the classic ’70s slasher formula it pays homage to. But as part of a larger trend of artsy indie horror movies that make you think, X is more boobs and guts than it is brains. Despite enthralling and transgressive genre filmmaking, it fails to rise above the one old horror trope we really need to retire.

Fear of aging — most often depicted on screen as a sexist disgust toward elderly women’s bodies — is just too tired a cliché for what’s otherwise the best teen slasher since Cabin in the Woods. Just like that 2011 cult hit, X also suffers from being a bit too up its own ass at times, full of winking-to-the-camera meta-commentary on the horror movie conventions it toys with.

Opening on a grisly crime scene in rural America, the movie feels like it begins exactly where the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s iconic ending left off. You can practically smell the putrid scent of teen flesh rotting in the baking Southern sun. So when we flash back to a van with a hot young cast and crew going to shoot a porn film on a farm, we already know where this is headed. The dread only mounts after a tense encounter between our group of groovy, free-lovin’ youths and the decrepit, God-fearing elderly couple whose barn they’re using as a set.

As the latest entry into Ti West’s horror filmography (joining cult favorites like The Innkeepers and House of the Devil), X is the best execution of the writer-director’s unique talents so far. Aside from a trademark blend of humor and horror, the movie highlights West’s unparalleled mastery of tension and pacing. With offputting scene transitions that cut back and forth like a stutter, a fun flourish with the ’70s split-screen cinematic technique, and its keen eye for finding visceral beauty in the grotesque, X is a total filmmaking flex.

However, it’s held back by the director’s weaknesses as much as it shines from his strengths. West was an early pioneer of the modern arthouse horror-comedy. But when it comes to using that sub-genre as a metaphor for bigger ideas about the human condition, West still lags behind more recent trailblazers like Jordan Peele.

X lays it on thick with thematic explorations of sex as death, taking the commonly touted fun fact that a French euphemism for “orgasm” translates into “a small death” pretty literally. Most obviously, the movie interrogates American culture’s uniquely hypocritical Puritan values, which condemn sex as a sin but celebrate violence as a God-given right. There’s some interesting commentary on the cinematic similarities between slasher films and porn, too, positioning them as opposite sides of the same hedonistic spectrum.

But for all its smugly self-aware jokes about using avant-garde editing techniques to hide the porno’s low budget, X appears oblivious to some of its other hacky, self-aggrandizing superficialities.


Much of the movie’s horror relies on an ageism that dehumanizes young and mature women alike.

Much of the movie’s horror relies on an ageism that dehumanizes young and mature women alike, and the meaning behind this central choice isn’t clear enough to justify how little it questions this trope’s misogyny. It’s a blind spot made more frustrating by how X has already garnered far greater critical attention and praise than a film like Relic ever did. The slept-on 2020 indie horror by writer-director Natalie Erika James brilliantly subverts the genre’s demonization of the kind of older women that X doesn’t hesitate in depicting as inherently horrific.

The ageism is made all the more egregious by how X appears to see itself as being in conversation with some seminal feminist film theories that were sparked by the classic ’70s slashers the movie pays homage to.

X deliberately plays with the formula we’ve come to expect from the “final girl” trope, a term famously coined by critic Carol J. Clover as a way to point out the slasher’s gendered sexual politics. Instead of sacrificing the archetypal female “whore” character so that the “virgin” can live till the end, X‘s modern twist has audiences rooting for the survival of basically a whole group of unabashed “whores.”

It also feasts on the Freudian-feminist film language of critics like Laura Mulvey, whose classic essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema coined the term “male gaze.” X loves to use phallic objects as metaphorical penises, evokes fucked-up family gender dynamics, and takes pleasure in climactic murder scenes full of suggestively spewing bodily fluids. The movie even breaks the fourth wall while its female characters fuck for the camera, seemingly as an interrogation of that ever-present male gaze in everything from porn to slashers.


Credit: A24

But it only seems to wade into those conversations pioneered by and about women for the intellectual clout, like that toxic film major guy from college who just recently discovered the existence of a male gaze.

The movie often feels like it lampshades a great pair of tits as some kinda empowering critique on patriarchy. At the same time, it uses a bunch of poorly caked-on prosthetic makeup to perpetuate male-centric cinema’s revulsion toward the wrinkled naked female form. Despite wanting to be above such demeaning practices, X still exclusively treats aging women as synonymous with the monstrous rather than, you know, the nature of being human.

Speaking from my own personal experience, X wasn’t a fun movie to watch while having a female body. It also wasn’t a fun movie to watch for anyone who’s seen aging loved ones fall into the nightmares of dementia. I understand that it doesn’t necessarily need to consider either of those lived experiences to be great cinema. But its failure to do so does undercut the emotional potency of the story it tries to tell.

Whatever X lacks in intellectual rigor or human empathy, though, it makes up for in pure carnal delights — especially for slasher fans. Thanks to a phenomenal cast and stand-out performance from Brittany Snow as blonde porn star Bobby-Lynne, the laughs land as hard as the blows in its axe murders.

X is a mastery of the grotesque that even veteran horror film lovers will find hard to sit through at times. But if you can stomach both the best and worst of this snuff film orgy, then you’re sure to enjoy yet another Ti West hall of famer.

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