In with the Old
By Greg Cwik
Ti West, U.S., A24
There's a shot about 15 minutes into Ti West's 2009 film The House of the Devil that, in only a few seconds, shows off West's low-budget elegance and adroit control behind the camera. College student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) leaves her dorm room—a dim, slovenly place she shares with an obnoxiously aloof roommate—in a fluster, frustrated that her babysitting gig fell through without explanation. She needs the money so she can make first month's rent on a house she desperately wants. She goes into the bathroom and turns on all the faucets on her way to a stall, presumably so she can cry without anyone hearing, and West rack-focuses on each individual faucet as the water comes on. It's a small, inconsequential shot, not important to the plot or story, or even particularly flashy, but it is so impressive in its creative, thrifty simplicity. The charm of the film for the first two thirds—and you see this in The Innkeepers too—is in the seemingly inconsequential small details.
The film, released when West wasn't even 30, is a glorious throwback to American horror films of the 1980s, something from the era of the Satanic Panic, featuring period appropriate details like feathered hair, and a prominent Walkman cassette player. It feels lived-in, cared for; it's a steady amassing of tension, an inch-by-inch accretion of eeriness. X, West's newest, is a spiritual successor to The House of the Devil. It's another throwback, this time to the rural horror films of the 1970s (e.g., Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left), and it too is replete with period details and carefully, consummately crafted. After the bafflingly bad The Sacrament (2013), a found-footage film about a Jonestown-like cult in which the characters never put down the camera no matter what kind of danger they're in, and the flaccid western In a Valley of Violence, I had written West off as someone who peaked young. But X is the real deal, a hot-blooded return to form. Like the slowly simmering anxiety attacks of The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers (probably West's most purely frightening film), it takes its time getting to the horror, but when it does, it delivers the carnage with gleeful, blood-and-viscera-spraying aplomb.
It's 1979, and a gaggle of starry-eyed pornographers, including actress Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), her executive producer boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson, sounding a lot like Matthew McConaughey), Bobby Lynne (Brittany Snow), the generously endowed Jackson Hole (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), ambitious director RJ (Owen Campbell) and RJ's girlfriend Lorrain (Jenna Ortega), rent a cabin on an elderly couple’s property in a backwoods Texas town to shoot their new film, hoping to break into the nascent home media phenomenon. Wayne wants to make a buck, and RJ wants to make a good film, something serious instead of the usual softcore drivel, naming the avant-garde of French cinema as his main influence. Maxine likes cocaine and wants to be famous, which makes her something of an uncharacteristic final girl. The elderly couple, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Goth again, in a lot of makeup), are creepy, as old people in horror films tend to be. Pearl stands around, gazing through windows at the young, libidinous group, yearning for someone to make her feel good, too. Instead, she has to settle for murdering the kids one by one. As the people-cooking Old Man in Texas Chain Saw says, "I just can't take no pleasure in killing. There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it."
West, who wrote, directed, produced, and co-edited the film, is clearly cognizant of the conservative moral underpinning of slasher films, the kind where the final girl is the most virtuous, innocent one of her friends, and everyone else is punished for their transgressions. Here, no one is innocent—even the initially prudish Lorrain wants to participate in the porn, which sends RJ into the shower to cry. West is creating an homage to an era, to an aesthetic, but he doesn't peddle in lazy references. In the early scenes of the gang shooting their dirty picture, the performers are bathed in golden light, the images overexposed. Limbs are entwined and set to the wet sound of flesh on flesh. “We turn folks on, and it scares them,” Wayne says.
X is a sinister, salacious slasher that is unencumbered by pretensions, a film flensed of fat (and flesh), concerned with grisly gory fun and giving us people getting stabbed and shot and eaten by alligators, and, of course, a whole lot of pretty, young naked people. The film has the soul of an old grindhouse flick; with its grainy 16mm texture and sex and the obvious joy West takes in butchering bodies, it feels like a video nasty that was exhumed from someone's closet. But, as much as West obviously loves the lurid trash of the ’70s, his formal dexterity is often quite modern. When Maxine goes for a swim in a pond, West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett shoot the scene from overhead, way up high so that Maxine and the dock are tiny, barely discernible, Maxine in the center of the frame and the dock like a nub on the left side; she begins to head back to the dock, and an alligator enters the frame from the right, pursuing the unsuspecting Maxine, slowly closing in on her before, at the last second, Maxine climbs onto the dock, never the wiser.
It's the kind of shot that Hooper or Craven likely couldn't afford to do. As with so many compositions in The House of the Devil, there is a clever abstraction at play, a low-budget sprucing up of a film that still manages to stay true to its forebears. West doesn't take you out of the film with his elegant, modern flourishes. He marries the old to the new, paying homage to a bygone era of horror without being beholden to it.