As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This isn’t necessarily indicative of their quality or our willingness to enjoy them – sometimes, we’re just a little late to the party.

Ti West’s simply titled X follows a group of pornographic entrepreneurs as they set out to make their own x-rated movie in rural Texas. After renting an outbuilding from an eccentric elderly couple, the gang set about making their film, only to evoke the wrath of their hosts. The night that follows is one that most of the cast and crew won’t survive, thanks to the warped sensibilities of the couple whose property they’re on.

X stars Mia Goth in a dual role as both the protagonist/aspiring pornographer Maxine Minx and antagonist Pearl, with the latter role requiring significant prosthesis for the young actress to convincingly portray the decrepit and unhinged killer. Alongside Goth, X features Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi (as Scott Mescudi), Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell. It’s a relatively tight-knit cast, which plays to director Ti West’s strengths given his impressive experience as an independent filmmaker. It helps to keep X feeling less mainstream than its horror contemporaries, which also feeds into the film’s premise about the filming of a low-budget ’70s porn flick.

X deliberately pays homage to the roots of the slasher genre, with throwbacks to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho in particular. Its premise also allows for it to evoke numerous other movies such as Boogie Nights and even Alligator, and all of this helps to firmly cement the atmosphere promised by its 1970s setting. The inspirations for X shine clearly through, but that isn’t to say that it lacks originality.

X Perfectly Recaptures The Original Magic Of The Slasher Genre

Owen Campbell, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Mia Goth, and Martin Henderon in Ti West's X

Through its various visual and narrative homages to slasher classics, X sets itself up to retread familiar ground, and on the surface, this is precisely what it does. It’s almost too easy to mistake X for a film far less intelligent than it actually is, because it presents itself as a fairly standard slasher. However, there are deeper thematic elements at play that manage to refresh the horror subgenre even while showing it reverence, resulting in a deceptively clever film that’s at once familiar and subversive.

Perhaps the best example of this is X‘s use of sex and sexuality as a driving force behind its story. X clearly takes its cues from the original slasher films, which were built around highlighting the dangers of the promiscuity of youth, but what it does with those cues is brilliant. While the same rules essentially apply – Pearl’s jealousy of their youth and loose morals fuel X‘s massacre – it takes the onus off of the victims and shifts it back onto the antagonists. Instead of the film’s violence being presented as an extreme lesson in consequence, X presents it as the horrific act of inhuman hypocrisy that it is: its villains simply punish sin with greater sin. This relieves X of the gentle victim-blaming that slashers once represented, and in the process highlights the way in which both the horror genre and society at large have evolved since the ’70s.

Achieving such subversion delicately is the key to X‘s success. It doesn’t feel as though West set out to criticize the genre, but instead to quietly update its conventions for modern audiences. X feels like a love letter to the brutality of slasher movies while also deftly navigating the more problematic elements of its typical subtext, and that’s something that helps it feel like a natural evolution for the genre.

X is well-acted and solidly written, and the cinematography is decently impressive. There are one or two elements of its story that come off as somewhat ageist, particularly in relation to the motivations for Pearl and Harold’s crimes. It’s implied that their spite signifies their own repressed urges and that their jealousy of the next generation’s freedom has stagnated into murderous tendencies. This could be interpreted as vaguely ageist, although it’s clear that it’s not exactly what West was aiming for.

X is a return to the roots of the slasher genre, but it does it with an approach that’s more modern and less problematic. The message is one of empowerment rather than fear, and that makes X vaguely inspiring in its subtext. There’s a distinct subtlety to the film that belies West’s talents as a writer and director, and the entire thing is realized with a beautiful grittiness that gives X the atmosphere of a genuine evolution of the slasher genre rather than a pale imitation of past greatness.

Rating: 85%

Summary: X seems unremarkable in its premise and in its general presentation, but there’s an unexpected depth to its story that makes it an interesting examination of how far the slasher genre can go in the age of modern cinema.

Highlights: X is underpinned by excellent performances, particularly from its female leads. Goth, Ortega, and Snow all radiate screen charisma in a way that one might not anticipate from a film with such a porn-fueled premise.