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In Ti West's X, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas only to find themselves fighting for their lives when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act.Courtesy of VVS Films

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X

Written and directed by Ti West

Starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega and Brittany Snow

Classification R; 105 minutes

Opens in theatres March 18

Critic’s Pick

Arguably, the most fun and satisfying horror movies are the ones that know their genre’s history and play with expectations with a certain level of self-awareness. In other words: The best horror films are made by horror fans. X, the new feature from long-time horror writer-director Ti West, is no exception to this rule, and makes decent work of mounting its own meta-commentary and coyly self-referential nature.

The premise alone is delightful: In 1979, a crew in the midst of filming an artistically ambitious pornographic movie are terrorized by an elderly couple on a rural Texas farm. While X points most overtly to the slasher classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – along with sly references to everything from The Shining to Paul Schrader’s Hardcore – what West offers up is more winking tribute than carbon copy.

Serving as his own editor, West’s formal and technical style sets us wholly within a 1970s visual culture that keeps up a striking verisimilitude to not only the American International Pictures sensibility of slasher filmmaking but the visual codes that dominated the “porno chic” era. It is a homage to the twin cinematic powers of pornography and horror that marked much of the decades’ screen history.

Notable, too, is West’s reworking of classic tropes and character types. X’s most enjoyable feature is its own self-awareness (which is wonderfully present in both winking and sincere formations), and sleight-of-hand play with tone and expectation. But the relationship that the film strikes with considerations of desirability, sexuality and gender is also compelling.

Which characters die – and when, where, and how they do so – has always been key to the genre, and here the conventions of such bloody patterning are intentionally teased. Sometimes, West plays these aspects as small gestures rather than fully fleshed out narrative movements, which is a shame as the film’s reversal of such archetypes is one of its most refreshing aspects.

Mia Goth as Maxine in X.Courtesy of VVS Films

Outside of this slight narrative slump, West’s direction is exacting and rigorous. From the filmmaker’s more formal experimentations right down to the soundtrack, which is perfect, X feels like the exact movie its maker set out to create. Also on the money is Mia Goth’s performance as Maxine, a starry-eyed ingenue who is equal parts ordinary and glittering in her ambition and sexuality.

Still, one only has to look a couple decades or even a few years back to similarly postmodern horror classics such as Wes Craven’s original Scream or Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods to see what this kind of filmmaking, when brought to the peak of its own reconstructive delirium, can look like. As enjoyable as X is – and as successful it is as a love letter to the sticky seats and sweaty palms of the grindhouse era – West’s production still represents a peculiar irony. As much as the movie clearly aspires to, it just can’t fully let loose.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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