Ti West’s new “goddamn fucked up horror picture” ‘X’ might just be the slasher film we’ve all been waiting for. Following a brief hiatus from the feature-length horror and film scene in general, the writer and director known for his films ‘The Inkeeper’ (2011) and ‘The House of the Devil’ (2009) amongst others, has sprung back into frame swinging. ‘X’ is a film set in the rural Texas we know and love. It revolves around a group of hopeful people united in their humble quest to shoot a high-quality adult film and eventually make it big. Once the crew arrives at their boardinghouse-doubling-as-a-set, however, they quickly sense that something isn’t quite right about the elderly couple who owns the sprawling property. But hey, their ticket to the top isn’t going to make itself. ‘X’was rated R for strong bloody violence and gore, language, graphic nudity, drug use, and strong sexual content. Yet once we are dropped into the world of this film-about-a-film, there really doesn’t seem to be anything gratuitous about it.
The narrative begins twenty-four hours before the opening scene unfolds– the frame widening ever so slowly so as to accommodate the grisly crime scene in its steaming brutal entirety, as the Sherriff attempts to fathom what could have possibly left this scene of carnage in its wake.
The year is 1979; the title plastered in larger-than-life American flag typography over an industrial landscape as our film crew, packed tight into their ‘Plowing Service’ van, ventures out into more isolated wilds for their shoot. Ringmaster and Producer Wayne, played by Martin Henderson (‘The Ring’), has high hopes for the home VHS market as it relates to the blooming adult film entertainment industry and his spot within it. And student filmmaker RJ (Owen Campbell), who has been hired to direct the new picture, is a man with a French-New-Wave-inspired plan. Stephen Ure plays the role of leering old man/’ugly son of a bitch’/property owner, who is also referred to as Howard. He and his wife Pearl once again resurrect the age-old question that no one– or is it everyone– seems to have the answer to. Why are old people so scary? Mia Goth, whose performances you have seen in a number of exceptional horror films these past years has secured her position as a new pillar within the genre with her character, Maxine, who bears the brunt of Lady Pearl’s unwanted advances and disturbingly unfaltering gaze.
People just can’t seem to peel their eyes off of Maxine as the film shoot progresses, which really burrows beneath Maxine’s skin despite her dreams of being a big star the likes of Lynda Carter. Granted, she does seem to possess a rather captivating aura; Wayne has devoted himself to bringing her the success she desires, Pearl can’t seem to get her decrepit hands off of her, and ever-righteous Lorraine who the team nicknames ‘Churchmouse’ (played by Jenna Ortega) won’t quit her staring. Quite frankly, it’s rude. But what is it about Maxine that evokes such strong inclinations from those around her? Is it the allure of her youth radiating off of her skin, or her desirability, or perhaps her strength in claiming what she believes ought to be hers?
This attention paid to the politics and mere presence of the power inherent in desire isn’t exactly subtle in ‘X.’ They are making a porno, after all. But the porn, you see, that’s just the movies. It’s not real, as RJ tells us. That’s only what the camera sees. What is real is the manner with which Horror and Desire are woven together onscreen as the glimpses we are offered of the dirty film being produced and the older couple’s strained relationship become more blurred. Or perhaps the real horror stems from these glimpses revealing truths to the audience that feel unsettlingly clear. Pearl’s sexual urges paired with her deep yearning to be perceived as desirable and young again like Maxine, is the core of what pushes this tale forward. I didn’t perceive it as a coincidence that ‘X’ made the decision to paint Pearl’s desire as monstrous. Her desire is a thing to be feared. It is a thing to be reckoned with. Unlike the pornography being filmed, which is just sex as Maxine puts it, Pearl’s yearning is evil. It’s wrong. But why? Is this demonization of elderly love, or commentary on our own societal prejudices rooted in who gets to feel empowered or natural in their sexuality versus who doesn’t? If ‘X’ has taught me anything, perhaps it’s that people don’t just age out of…love…but eventually they do grow too old to…do it…and then comes the murder.
Rage can really brew in a body grown old and undesirable–in beauty grown abject– especially when that body holds onto its flesh needs as opposed to shedding them over time. Or so they say.
This film truly uses bodies to its advantage, and it has every right to do so. The frame compositions scene by scene fell back on classic notions of using the body as a landscape, of their own accord, which was nothing short of beautiful. And given the premise of ‘X,’ there was certainly no shortage of bodies in motion onscreen. The power of the craft that went into the creation of this film in every regard, but particularly its use of human forms as their own respective narratives, had to do with the way that value was attributed to them. We have all seen nudity and sex and violence in films before. We’re no strangers to bodies. But ‘X’ differs from the rest in that it places a body’s sense of value in what that body is capable of. These are bodies that are people who are performing and swimming and fighting and trying. They aren’t just swathes of flesh pulsating and dying so as to get a rise out of some invisible viewer. Hence why none of it feels gratuitous or exploitative as most Horror within the genre tends to fall back on when the story fails.
As with all well-crafted pieces, ‘X’ beckons audiences to reflect upon the blood, guts, and gore of our collective cinematic past. Having had the opportunity to view this film in a theater with an audience who cackled at the right times and gasped aloud when the sound design and incredible score demanded it, was an absolute pleasure. ‘X’ reminds me of what it has always been about ‘scary movies’ that drew me in, to begin with. The level of craftsmanship dedicated to the cultivation of this film was nothing short of masterful despite its seamless and very raw appearance. As it should be. Its dark sense of humor and highly aestheticized cinematography made ‘X’ feel like some sort of ode to classic Horror icons whilst still preserving the integrity of its own distinct voice through the use of clever editing and the film’s remarkable cast.
Jenna Ortega’s bone-chilling howl will not soon be forgotten, I’d reckon. Brittany Snow and Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi)’s on-screen dynamic also did more than their share of keeping that morally-wrong-objectively-harmless human energy alive. Nor will the quick cuts between the crew’s dirty film and the true horror unfolding in the main house, during the lemonade scene. Those parallels were a masterclass in building tension within an already doomed film shoot, and X’s utilization of classic Horror tropes ensured that its audience remembered what the big picture truly was.
Ti West and his crew also went to great lengths when it came to ensuring that X looked authentically 70s despite their inability to shoot on film given the COVID restrictions they faced in New Zealand during production. Fortunately, it is safe to say that their efforts certainly paid off nonetheless. The film’s POV shifts time and again between the broader audience’s perspective and the perspective of the camera-in-use as the crew is shooting. That dichotomy in terms of the film’s visual language helped usher in the pervading question of perspective within the story while still contributing to the beloved gritty texture of their world.
Does the camera’s being there truly make a difference? Can it really be enough of a buffer in separating what is morally good and what society has deemed sinful? All great questions posed by the film (and by the film, we mean Lorraine’s character). And if we’re being honest, it’s rarely ever about finding the answers to these things anyway so much as hearing the sound they make when you bring them out into the open, is it?
‘X’ is great because it implicates the audience in its brutality, as all great horror does. It doesn’t shy away from pointing fingers and acknowledging the fact that we’re looking. Particularly in relation to the Sherriff’s presence within the narrative, we audience members can’t refuse accountability. We were there, and we saw everything. Being the sole witnesses outside of X’s Final Girl, we know that if we hadn’t seen it all unfold in real-time, we would have never been able to piece the gruesome scene together either. Within that savagery, therein, lay some sense of camaraderie. In this rural story of looming old people, gators, and sex on camera, we found a brief return to horror films where people die when you kill them. And car headlights change colors, painting everything red when blood splatters across the fender. It was refreshing to not be haunted by the supernatural forces that lurk about these days and to trade them in for good ol’ guns and car tires and rakes. There’s no such thing as taking the moral high ground in this picture once the going gets rough. After all, what’s the point in doing the right thing when what’s right has always been a societal construct anyway, only wielded to glean power for oneself? Much in line with Maxine’s own mantra, I will not accept a horror film that I do not deserve.
But I would gladly do this one again.
SXSW 2022: Prudishness, 70s Rural Texas, and the Horrors of (Elderly) Desire in ‘X’