If I had a dime — or maybe a drop of blood — for every movie that tried to recreate the vibe, the situation, and the high anxiety of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” I’d have a pretty big bucket of blood. For decades, I’ve been watching movies that open with a handful of obnoxious kids in a vehicle, tooling down a redneck roadway, and then…well, you know what happens next. They land in a remote house somewhere, at which point the film in question stops bearing any resemblance to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Instead, it turns into one more instance of deadening formula trash: another piece of slasher-movie roadkill.
But “X,” written and directed by Ti West, is an imitation with a difference. For one thing, it could hardly be more upfront about its son-of-“Chain Saw” atmosphere — which is to say it’s a deliberate, loving, and meticulous homage that isn’t simply trying to cash in on the legacy of the greatest horror film of the last half century.
More than that, it’s a movie made with genuine mood and skill and flavor. Your average “Chain Saw” knockoff never seems remotely like a movie from the grainy outlaw ’70s. It is, rather, contempo product that feels like product; the movies in the “Chain Saw” franchise itself are made with the worst kind of synthetic digital sheen. But “X,” set in 1979, actually achieves the look and atmosphere of 1979: the free-ride waywardness, the needle drops (Pablo Cruise, “In the Summertime”), the local televangelist barking at his stuffy minions on a black-and-white TV set. The film’s images have a no-fuss pastoral documentary lyricism, and it’s not just the way the shots look. It’s the way they’re cut together — slowly and calmly, without razzmatazz, so that the film seems to be taking place in real time, at a time when technology was a lot quieter. The folks within those frames actually seem like real people.
They’re in a Dodge van, driving from Houston into the Texas countryside, winding up at a remote farmhouse that looks very much like the one we all know. But they’re not lost. They’ve got a purpose. They have come to this place to shoot a porn film called “The Farmer’s Daughters.” By 1979, most porn was being shot in New York or L.A., but these amateurs don’t feel fake. Maxine (Mia Goth), the most ambitious of them, with turquoise eye shadow that looks like an homage to the ’70s porn actress Jeanine Dalton, wants to be a star, though she still has to coke herself up to do what she’s doing. (Very authentic.)
Her boyfriend, the middle-aged cowboy stud Wayne (Martin Henderson), is producing the film and running the shoot. Maxine is going to be one of the farmer’s daughters, and so is Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), who works, like Maxine, at a Houston burlesque club. Jackson (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi), the one male porn actor in the group, is Bobby-Lynne’s’s boyfriend, and the other two kids are the filmmakers: RJ (Owen Campbell), the stringy-haired geek who’s directing the film (i.e., pointing the camera), and has convinced himself it’s going to be a piece of “cinema,” and his girlfriend, Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who’s on hand to hold the boom mike. They have rented a farm cottage about 75 yards from the main house, and they’re going to use that and the cow barn to stage their country-vixen fantasy.
“Texas Chain Saw,” the granddaddy of the slasher genre, had an atmosphere that was sexualized enough that the porn-film plot of “X” feels like a natural extension of it. We see several of the porn scenes being shot, and like the ones in “Boogie Nights” they’re realistic and true to the scruffy pre-video porn vibe. So what’s there to be scared of? When they arrive at the farmhouse, Wayne is greeted at the door by a gnarly old man who looks about 100, like the grandpa in “Chain Saw.” He doesn’t seem that scary until he picks up a shotgun. Even so, there’s got to be more.
Is there a Leatherface? Not quite. But grandpa has a wife, who looks about as old as he is, and she starts to show up in odd places, her white hair, in a Victorian bun like the one on the corpse of Norman Bates’ mother, looking like a nimbus. These two ancient codgers are the quintessence of creepy. But we wonder what’s going to happen, since Ti West, in making this film, strikes a kind of deal with the audience. He basically says: I won’t cheat. I won’t have an insane killer coming out of nowhere. I will earn your fear. And he does.
“X” is no “Chain Saw.” What is? Nothing comes close (except for maybe Takashi Miike’s “Audition,” the most disturbing horror film since). But “X” is a wily and entertaining slow-motion ride of terror that earns its shocks, along with its singular quease factor, which relates to the fact that the demons here are ancient specimens of humanity who actually have a touch of…humanity. West, as a filmmaker, reverses tropes in a way that speaks to the era that was coming. The men, for once, are the first to get killed off, and where movie slashers tend to represent the suppression of female sexuality, “X” is a kind of feminist horror film in which the principal demon is a woman who wants to embrace sexuality. The world just won’t let her.
But that doesn’t mean she’s not evil, or that we don’t want to see her evil crushed. “X” is threaded with blithe references to key films — a car in a swamp like the one in “Psycho,” an ax through a door like the one that kicks off Jack Nicholson’s rampage in “The Shining,” an alligator borrowed from “Alligator” (ingeniously shot from high above in one jittery sequence), an ending that nods to the premise of Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” (which came out in 1979). West must have always dreamed of staging a slasher sequence to “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” and he does the song justice. But the key reference that hovers over “X,” and that lends the movie its texture, is the old-lady-in-the-bathtub nightmare sequence from “The Shining.” The way that it’s evoked, the movie seems to be saying: Monsters are people too.