Horror tyro Ti West had been lying low since the failure of 2013's The Sacrament, a rare instance of this filmmaker misjudging his material. (His 2016 Western In a Valley of Violence, with Ethan Hawke and John Travolta, went direct-to-VoD in the UK, and West retreated into TV, overseeing episodes of the small-screen The Exorcist, among other shows.) But the Seventies-set X turns out to have the kind of pitch theatrical exhibitors and distributors typically sit up and beg for - a grabby collision of sex and violence that suggests what might have happened had the action in Boogie Nights been interrupted by characters from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. On some basic narrative level, the new film is a clash between two tribes: the tight-knit cast and crew setting out from metropolitan Houston to shoot a porno movie in the surrounding countryside, and the old couple whose ranch has been alighted upon as a suitable location for same. From the off, you can tell it's a West movie because he appears sincerely interested in his characters - on both sides of this divide - as flesh-and-blood people, not ready-made, cardboard victims. The porno crew are characterised as genial dreamers who (wrongly, it turns out) believe they have their entire lives in front of them; they're led into battle by a bestetsonned entrepreneur (Martin Henderson) who's clocked the oilfields around him and determined "I don't want to have to wear a hard hat to make a living". Between mock-porno scenes that surely provided the first real test for Hollywood's new on-set intimacy coordinators, we get unexpected sidebars: ingenue Mia Goth (more present and forceful here than she's so far been onscreen) wanders off to swim in a lake inhabited by alligators, a knowing suspense sequence - the violins recall Jaws - thrown in while we wait for the battle royale to kick off. It is, in short, a horror movie that largely refuses to assume the shape and positions you might expect from this set-up; it's certainly the only horror movie I've seen to feature a mid-film singalong to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide".
Inevitably, however, everything boils down to the fraught relationship between these thrusting young interlopers and the oldtimers in the creepy house over the hill: the bluffly conservative, shotgun-toting hubby (Stephen Ure) and his lonely former ballerina wife (Goth again, this time under latex). Here is another collision in the heart of America, between the hypersexed and the sexless; suggestive paralleling - punched up by West and David Kashevaroff's razor-sharp editing - leads us to the conclusion that the lusty kids down at the love shack are acting on desires and impulses that have either left their hosts behind or which their hosts are no longer able to act upon. That's an unusual hook to hang a movie on, because - again - it brings us back to flesh rather than fantasy. It also allows West to restart a conversation about the horror cinema's traditionally fraught relationship with sex - indeed, to put it on screen, in the form of an increasingly heated debate between Henderson, his uptight director (Owen Nicholls) and the latter's "nice girl" girlfriend (Jenna Ortega), here as a sound recordist but keen to get in on the filmed action herself. The tensions are many and varied, then; two-thirds of the way into X, you may be no closer to knowing who is destined to turn killer and who their victims will be. I have notes on that final third: it would have been more affecting had West cast actual septuagenarians rather than sending younger performers to the make-up trailer to be turned into monsters, and it's a pity it should involve the sniggery scenario of one character getting stuck under a bed. Somewhere in here, there's a properly confrontational and haunting film about American conservatism and the cult of youth, but it would have taken a more mature sensibility behind the camera to draw it out; laying on bouts of splatter and a late gimcrack twist, West just seems happy enough to be back inside the multiplex, giving audiences a wild ride. Wild it is, though: at its best, X demonstrates how this filmmaker is better than most of his horror contemporaries at shuffling the pieces and perspectives within his stories, and thereby keeping a suspenseful game alive.
X is available to buy on DVD through Sony from Monday.