Film Review: “X” – The Texas Grindhouse Massacre
By Nicole Veneto
X takes the right lessons from Chainsaw: it is both an adoring homage and a much needed rejuvenation of the slasher genre.
X, directed by Ti West, now in theaters.
For those wondering, no, I have not seen the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot, nor do I intend to. I have better things to do with my time. Besides, fellow Arts Fuse contributor Sarah Osman laid out a pretty sound argument as to why you shouldn’t waste your attention span on yet another failed attempt to bring Leatherface and family into the 21st century. Many of the issues Osman identifies with the latest Chainsaw are symptomatic of problems that plague reboots, remakes, and belated sequels in general. Its “childish” attempts at contemporary social commentary and “how do you do, fellow kids?” approach to its victim pool of “insufferable” Zoomers are contrived efforts to make Chainsaw relevant to an audience for whom senseless acts of heinous violence are omnipresent in the real and digital worlds. The horror that pulses through Tobe Hooper’s grimey 1974 masterpiece is timeless; it’s as much a gut response to the Vietnam War and the Manson murders as it is an enduring metaphor for America’s historically insatiable hunger for violence.
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is widely regarded as the first contemporary American slasher film. This far grislier retooling of Psycho’s formula spawned an entire slew of imitators who attained varying degrees of success. But, with the exception of the Scream and Halloween franchises (Michael Myers is still terrorizing Haddonfield well into his sixties), slasher movies hardly grace the big screen anymore. Even the Chainsaw reboot went straight to Netflix instead of receiving a theatrical run and then languishing in $1 movie bargain bins as per tradition. At first pass, Ti West’s X seems like yet another uninspired studio-effort to revive the slasher by way of nostalgic allusion to Chainsaw and other icons of the genre. It’s for this reason that I wasn’t originally planning on seeing or reviewing it. I enjoyed Ti West’s retro throwback House of the Devil enough when it came out, but I found his 2011 follow-up, The Innkeepers, slow and incredibly boring. Thank god I took another chance on West It takes an hour of sexually-titilating buildup and creepy old people before blood starts spilling in X, but the resulting slaughter is a delightfully gorey one. X takes the right lessons from Chainsaw: it is both an adoring homage and a much needed rejuvenation of the slasher genre.
Texas, 1979. Maxine Minx (scream queen Mia Goth channeling Linda Lovelace) is an aspiring porn star whose sparkly-blue eyeshadow is as luminous as her drive for fame. She’s got that elusive “X factor” so to say, frequently repeating the mantra “I will not accept a life I don’t deserve” after a pick-me-up line of coke. Foreseeing a fortune in the impending home video boom, Maxine’s forty-something boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson, The Ring), a stripclub owner, devises a plan to make a DIY porno with Maxine’s blonde co-worker Bobby Lyne (Brittany Snow) and her well-endowed boyfriend Jackson Hole (rapper-turned-actor Kid Cudi). Joined by their auteur-worshiping film student director RJ (Owen Campbell) and his meek girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the gang piles into Wayne’s van – “Plowing Service” cheekily emblazoned on the side – to film “The Farmer’s Daughter” out in the boonies.
Too cheap to lease an actual set or soundstage, Wayne arranges to shoot their smut on a derelict farm with a vacant guest house belonging to a cantankerous octogenarian named Howard (Stephen Ure under heavy prostheses) and his elderly wife Pearl (Goth taking a cue from Suspiria co-star Tilda Swinton in a dual role), a deal struck without disclosing the kind of movie being made on the yokels’s land. Pearl, who’s prone to aimlessly wandering around the property, takes a leering interest in Maxine, in whom she (literally) sees what was once within herself: youth, beauty, and a sexually ravenous appetite Howard can no longer satisfy with his “weak” heart in old age. Inevitably, both Pearl and Howard catch onto what the “hippie sex perverts” in the guesthouse are up to and, like any aging and sexually repressed conservative couple, they rectify the situation by brutally murdering their unaware guests one by one throughout the night.
West’s smartest move with X is that it stakes its premise in the overlap between the slasher and pornography. Chainsaw and Deep Throat came out within two years of each other. Along with the emergence of the slasher, the ’70s saw the Golden Age of Porn whittling away the boundary between smut and cinematic art. Lest anyone forget, Chainsaw was released by Deep Throat distributors Bryanston Distributing Company. If Chainsaw is “a movie about meat,” then X is a movie about bodies. Before coining the term “final girl,” Carol J. Clover probed the intersections between slashers and porn as “body genres” that aim to arouse and stimulate their audiences. As “transparent source[s] for (sub)cultural attitudes toward sex and gender,” slashers and pornography tread similar ground with their focus on the body in the throes of pain/pleasure. Its on this basis that feminists and conservatives became strange bedfellows in the ensuing backlash against smut and video nasties in the ’80s. Locating the action in 1979 feels significant for this reason, marking a bloody end to the freewheeling ’70s while anticipating the gory turn slashers would take in the ensuing decade.
Though not as enmeshed in vintage filmmaking aesthetics as House of the Devil (the decision to shoot on 16mm was dropped before production began), West takes a similar stylistic approach to X, capturing the essence of the time period without bludgeoning viewers over the head with nostalgia. The best example of this is the opening shot: an establishing view of the farm from inside a barn with the sliding doors occluding both sides of the screen, giving the illusion that the film is pillarboxed into Academy ratio. X has the usual A24 gloss to it, which some people have grown tired of. Nonetheless it’s one of the best looking horror movies in recent memory.
For a film that practically begs one-to-one comparison to Chainsaw, X elaborates on a contrast with the original. Sex has always been a crucial ingredient to the slasher, yet despite its innate connection to the porn industry, Chainsaw is relatively chaste — not to mention bloodless — in contrast to later entries where the killer is summoned by illicit sexual activity. Whereas Chainsaw’s cannibalistic carnage is instigated by the economic displacement of a slaughterhouse family, X’s manifests out of Howard and Pearl’s sexual despair because of their aging bodies; they’ve become “too old to fuck.” No benefits of the sexual revolution for them; they are not fit for battle. Understood this way, their killing spree is generated by sexual repression, a reactionary response to a world that’s left them and their waning libidos behind. Sex is not a moral affront to their conservative values so much as it is dangling a hunk of meat in front of a starving gator (the best kill in the movie).
There’s something quite provocative about what West’s suggesting here in light of a different set of horrors being waged against human bodies in Texas. The Texas Heartbeat Act bars abortion before most people know they’re pregnant; the result will inevitably be a rise in unsafe abortion procedures. Equally as sickening is Governor Abbot’s letter to Texas’s DFPS, which classifies gender affirming health care for transgender youth as “child abuse,” putting children and their supportive families in an egregiously draconian predicament. X is just slightly less horrifying than what’s currently happening in Texas, albeit I wouldn’t put it past state legislature to outright legalize murder at this point. Either way, West’s added yet another reason why you shouldn’t mess with (or try to make porn in) Texas.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.