“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” So speaks fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 psychological horror The Neon Demon, a film in which surface level beauty thinly papers over violent and sexual cracks. It’s a mantra that so openly represents the stylistic choices Refn employs in what should be considered his masterpiece. Six years later, writer/director Ti West – in his return to the horror genre – has taken similar confidence from such shallow sentiments, to give us what is the benchmark for scary movies so far this year: X.

The year is 1979 and a small group of pornographic filmmakers/actors head to a cabin to make what they hope will become their ticket to glory in the booming home video market. The owners of said cabin are two old-timers Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (an unrecognisable Mia Goth in one of two roles) who live across the farm and listen to the constant ramblings from an extreme Christian TV preacher. In other words, it’s a “Cabin in the Woods” story that sets itself out as a simple Conservative vs Liberal / prude vs hedonist tale. Instead what follows is a celebration of 20th Century horror cinema with a dash of deconstruction thrown in for good measure.

Alongside cinematographer Eliot Rockett, West riffs on shots from classics such as Psycho and The Shining, gleefully baiting the audience into mindless fan service and nostalgia. However, it is Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – a film flooded with sweat and dried with sawdust – that West’s modern carnage echoes most closely. Given that 2022 has also had a new entry into the long-running Chainsaw franchise, X threatens to wear such influences thin long before any real action starts. Thankfully, whereas Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was lightweight and forgettable (not to mention the slight degree of arrogance given that it framed itself as the true sequel to Hooper’s masterpiece yet made many of the same mistakes which have plagued the most recent series entries), X is instead a film willing to prove that not all slashers need to be mindless gorefests. If you’ve ever found yourself hearing things such as, ‘well it’s just a slasher, what did you expect?’ X is the ideal film to use as a rebuttal. 

Goth’s Pearl is most infatuated with the new occupants on her farm; their profession in which sex and beauty are prerequisites for the job bringing to mind her younger years as a dancer – attractive, desirable, and sexual. These experiences are long gone by the time the audience meet her and instead we are introduced to a woman frustrated with what time has taken from her. This isn’t simply Leatherface hiding his grotesqueness, it’s asking if he could once have been beautiful? If so what does that change about him? Is beauty the cause or the effect of our opinions on people? What if it could be both?

With a fun supporting cast including Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi and recently crowned scream queen Jenna Ortega (coming right off the back of 2022’s Scream and Studio 666), X’s screenplay takes valuable time to set up its victims so that they’re not merely lambs to the slaughter. It’s a blast to be in their company as equally as it is tragic to be in Howards and Pearl’s; the two lifestyles edited together like interlocking fingers slowly folding into one giant, furious fist.

With a back-to-back produced prequel set to hit theatres at some point in the future, one wonders how West will tackle the subject matter when aging isn’t an issue for our lead character? Or perhaps he will abandon it completely to shift his focus elsewhere? Whatever the answers may be, for now we should be thankful to have a slasher that’s not just blood and guts, but meat and bones too.

In cinemas now