In 1979, a group of young filmmakers set out to make an adult film in rural Texas, but when their reclusive, elderly hosts catch them in the act, the cast find themselves fighting for their lives. (SOURCE)
The opening shot of writer/director Ti West’s first feature film in six years, X (2022), artfully establishes both the time of the film and its timeliness to the modern viewer. Beginning inside a barn, the camera moves slowly through the doors towards a farmhouse in the distance. West films this establishing shot in the older, square, 4×3 aspect ratio. As the camera passes through the doors, the view widens. Once outside the barn, the shot becomes the contemporary, wide-screen ratio as it moves the viewer closer to the farmhouse and arriving police cars.
Like fellow cinema trickster Quentin Tarantino, Ti West uses the gloss of a Hollywood big budget to deliver a Grindhouse/exploitation film. Using his own unique style of storytelling and visual flair, West makes the movie much more than a one-two punch to the gut. The premise, with its dual promises of titillation and terror, may be sleazy, but it is well-made sleaze. One trick the director uses to deliver both at once is to return to the aspect ratio shifting of the opening scene. He uses the aspect ratio shifting of the opening as Pearl stalks Maxine in the woods while Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott Mescudi) film a sex scene. The mixture of voyeuristic thrills during the eroticism of the porn scene coupled with the terror of witnessing unsuspecting Maxine’s peril is superb.
The characters are well-drawn and the performances range from good to great. Mia Goth especially shines in her dual role as the hungry-for-stardom Maxine as well as bitter and demented Pearl. We can read them as the same character at different, extreme periods of life. Pearl is the result of Maxine’s youthful optimism, tainted and tarnished by her failure to realize the dreams of her youth.
A part of the movie’s fun, X marks the spot where ty west aesthetically tithe grimy, 1970s era days of DIY pornography and the modern neo-slasher meet. One aspect that both genres share (and sets them apart from others) is how quality is defined by the audience’s visceral reactions to what they see on screen. West combines these physical responses, i.e. the fluids spilled, when the “story changes midway through,” despite cameraman RJ’s (Owen Campbell) protests that movies should not do that. The film quickly goes from Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) cleaning semen off her body to the frustrated cameraman spurting blood after Pearl stabs him. To further mix sex and death, the script calls for her to mount his dying body as blood shoots into the air, bathing her and tinting the scene red.
West increases viewers’ discomfort by focusing on something they already fear: growing old. Research has revealed that many Millennials view aging as a slow and painful descent towards a lonely death. Many audience members see their later lives as a “steep decline” where “dementia and loneliness (are) inevitable.” (SOURCE) Howard and Pearl are the human expressions of those fears. Wraith thin, they lustfully hunger after the young characters’ youth and vitality, consuming their lives as the incubus and succubus they are.
There is a lot to love about X. Much more than a slasher, West imbues his film with plenty of good scares, a good cast and a genuine love of the medium. Even though the film takes place in 1979, it addresses contemporary issues such as millennials’ fear of aging. The performances are top-notch, the nudity is sexy, and kills are bloody and gory. Despite what the sheriff (James Gaylyn) says, X is more than “One Goddamned, fucked-up horror picture.”
I am a lifelong lover of horror who delights in the uncanny and occasionally writes about it. My writing has appeared at DIS/MEMBER and in Grim magazine. I am also in charge of programming at WIWLN’s Insomniac Theater, the Internet’s oldest horror movie blog written by me. The best time to reach me is before dawn.