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X Review: Dirty Movie

Ti West has a knack for showing you something you think you've seen before, and then twisting it just enough that a classic genre formula suddenly feels fresh and vibrant to modern audiences. He did it most memorably with "House of the Devil," a throwback to low-budget cult horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, but there are elements of the same approach in his entire horror output. There's the advantage of a certain familiarity, but when executed properly, a Ti West film can make even the most familiar elements shock you to your core.

Which brings us to "X," West's triumphant return to horror features after nearly a decade away working in television and the occasional non-horror feature. Like "House of the Devil," it's a film that wears its influences and forebears on its sleeve, playing in a sandbox previously occupied by the likes of Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, but West is not content to rest in comfortable territory. Instead he uses that sandbox to build a towering new structure of beautifully hideous violence, weaving a tale about aging, desire, and death into the well-worn fabric of 1970s backwoods terror.

Let's make a movie

"X" begins, like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" before it, with a group of young people piling into a van, but these young people aren't out to visit a graveyard. They're out to make an adult film that they hope will bring them all stardom in very different ways. Wayne (Martin Henderson) wants to turn his days of running strip clubs into an executive producer credit, while Maxine (Mia Goth) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) want to go from dancers to stars and Jackson (Scott Mescudi) wants to use what he's got to get famous. Meanwhile RJ (Owen Campbell) is hoping to prove that a film can be artistic and dirty at the same time, and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) is just along for the ride.

To make their would-be X-rated masterpiece, the group heads out to a little rental house on the property of a grumpy old man who's suspicious of the young folks from the start, and warns them to stay away from his ailing wife even as she peers at them from the windows of their farmhouse. Unbothered, the crew heads into the house and gets right to the action, unaware of what the night will bring.

You can probably guess at least a little of what's about to happen, even if you can't guess exactly how. West, as a dedicated student and fan of his chosen genre, knows this, and makes the entire first half of the film a playful teasing out of various narrative misdirects, dead ends, and subversions. Moments manage to convince you that terror is imminent before veering off into another direction (a product of the film's sharp, witty editing), characters appear sinister before drifting back into benign territory, and even the archetypes presented by the characters themselves are challenged. By the midway point, you're not sure where "X" is headed next, leaving the film primed for a particular kind of mayhem.

Death and desire

In terms of pure horror craft, "X" is a very good entry in a very well-worn genre, dosing out the slasher thrills with skill, wit, and brutal efficiency. The first death scene is perhaps the most beautifully shot piece of violence West has ever executed, and even the more predictable bits of brutality play both scary and darkly funny. Outside the violence itself, there's a wonderful layer of tension stretched taut across the whole piece, helped along by West's tendency to intercut even sex scenes and moments of outright comedy with bits of atmospheric menace and attention to creepy detail.

The cast, led by Goth and Ortega, is all wonderfully game for the whole thing, whether they're throwing themselves headlong into sex scenes, diving into comedy, or digging deep into the visceral scenes of outright terror. There's a joy to it all, even the most brutal moments, that underlines the indie spirit that West has built his career on. You have to be invested to make a slasher film with this much care, but more importantly, you have to be in love with the idea of doing it right. That enthusiasm, that love, vibrates out through the screen at you, adding a warmth that makes the film perfect fodder for midnight movie crowds.

But perhaps the most memorable thing about "X," the thing that takes it from competent slasher film to joyous exploration of a subgenre, is just how much detail West and company pack into their story. This is a film about a group of kids who get picked off by a killer, yes, but it's also a film about the very fine, very American line between sex and murder, about war and what it does to people, about exploitation cinema in the 1970s, notions of purity at the edge of Reagan's America, ageism, memory, faith both gained and lost, and so much more. You can pull at any one of those threads of thematic oomph and get more from it, or you can leave them all in place and just let West's brutal little throwback horror journey wash over you. Either way, when it comes to "X," you're in for one hell of a ride.

"X" is in theaters on March 18.