Sex and Violence as an Art Form in Ti West’s ‘X’

Ah, A24.

You bring us so much wonderful, weird horror.

From slow, understated supernatural dramas like It Comes at Night and Witch to visceral, chaotic nightmares like The Lighthouse and Midsommar, A24’s horror selection has touched on just about every subgenre that could comfortably fit within the boundaries of what some critics have (somewhat obnoxiously) dubbed ‘elevated horror.’ These are ‘respectable’ horror films, movies that cater to the arthouse crowd more than the popcorn flick fans, which use horror as a vehicle to discuss some kind of greater thematic or societal subject matter. It’s a pretentious, bloated way of looking at these types of films, but it’s so far been the only way to get a lot of the more snobby critics out there to take horror seriously as a genre at this point, so it’s a bit of a necessary evil.

But A24’s newest output, the Ti West-directed X, eschews the typical trappings of a thinking man’s horror film for a more straight-forward, classic approach. Not one without its intellectual merits, mind you (far from it, in fact), but still, one that far more closely tows the line between arthouse piece and grindhouse exploitation film. Yes, folks, the day is finally here where a slasher film, of all things, has been released under the A24 banner, and it’s every bit as glorious as the prospect sounds.

Ti West has been a fan-favorite director within the horror community for quite some time now, with previous films The House of the Devil and The Sacrament both earning themselves quite the cult following. And for good reason: They’re both fantastically atmospheric, deeply haunting films, each tapping into the politics and social climates of two eras in history to deliver grounded scares rooted in real-world events. The House of the Devil is a conventionally-shot 1980s period piece based on the infamous ‘Satanic Panic’ of the late 70s, and The Sacrament is a found-footage mockumentary inspired by the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. Both films are elevated by their connections to reality, delivering scares in a grounded and sickeningly plausible fashion.

X continues this trend, with West once again heading back in time to 1979, at the early dawn of the home video age. The film follows a group of young twenty-somethings as they arrive at a backwoods Texas homestead, owned by a mysteriously cagey elderly couple, to shoot a porn flick. Over the span of 24 hours, their search for debauchery and fame slowly turns to madness as their octogenarian hosts reveal themselves as something far more sinister than they appear.

It’s a simple, straightforward premise, one that draws from quite a few of its slasher-movie predecessors, with elements pulled from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, Friday the 13th, and many, many more films of the era. The references range from subtle nods in the cinematography (the opening shot being pulled directly from Tobe Hooper’s first Chainsaw film) to full-on, in-universe discussions of the films themselves, as X proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s a love-letter to all the gritty, grimy, gross gorefests of yesteryear, with both its characters and its creative team having a keen awareness of the genre’s tentpole broad strokes. But this isn’t simply a pastiche of old-school horror clichés and archetypes. Rather, it’s a fresh, thoughtful evocation of the tropes and trends of grindhouse cinema, using audience expectations to craft something both reverential and wholly new.

The film heavily leans into its grindhouse sensibilities as well, taking full advantage of its R rating. I haven’t seen a mainstream, theatrically-released film with this much sex and nudity in a long, long time, which should come as no surprise given its porn-centric premise. Likewise, the gore is relentless and brutal, with X refusing to shy away from the bloody consequences of its violence. There’s certainly an air of gratuity at play here, but not without purpose. All the raunchy, sexy, and gruesome imagery all serves to accentuate the thematic elements at play in the film.

And really, that’s where X shines. It’s a rare treat these days when a horror film, much less a slasher, manages to be just as engaging during its dramatic moments as it is during the carnage and mayhem of its later acts, and yet X manages to deliver engaging and entertaining character moments in spades even before a single drop of blood is spilled. The killings that you’d expect to happen in a grindhouse slasher are here, of course, but they wisely take a backseat to the film’s real meat, which is the dynamic between our young protagonists/cannon fodder and their much older counterparts. This is a film about sexuality and repression, about religious conservatism, and about vanity. The generational clash between the children of the Free Love movement and the rigid, life-long expectation of commitment within the Greatest Generation. It touches on the duality of shame and free expression, and the debate over whether the film industry plays a corrupting role in the sexual identity of America’s youth. In short, underneath all the bloodshed and T&A is an extremely thought-provoking and emotionally resonant character piece.

And of course, none of this would work without a compelling cast of characters to begin with, and X once again proves that Ti West is no amateur. The characters all skirt the usual parameters of slasher movie stereotypes, yet manage to somehow transcend these categories entirely thanks to both their incredibly endearing performances as well as West’s smart, humanizing screenplay. Brittany Snow delights as the charmingly free-spirited Bobby-Lynne, a far cry from her Pitch Perfect image. Likewise, Martin Henderson channels his best Matthew McConaughey as Wayne, a seemingly sleezy wannabe porn producer who seems to genuinely have his cast and crew’s best interests at heart. Jenna Ortega continues her streak of self-aware slasher films following Scream as Lorraine, the group’s uptight and prudish young production assistant. And perhaps the most surprising is Jackson, played by rapper/singer Kid Cudi, who I had no clue was an actor and yet managed to be a comedic and likable highlight amongst an already superb collection of talent.

But the real star of the show is Mia Goth, pulling double duty as our Final Girl Maxine Minx as well as the psychotically, sympathetically villainous Pearl. Both characters contrast and compliment each other so perfectly, its difficult not to be in awe of the performance. Maxine is a deeply complex character, desperate for fame and unhealthily attached to her youth and her beauty, while at the same time struggling to come to terms with her upbringing. And at the same time, Goth disappears into the elderly Pearl so well that it legitimately took me a good two-thirds of the film to realize she was in fact hiding under all that old-age makeup. And that’s after seeing her face-to-face with her unmasked, youthful self for the majority of the film prior to that point. Pearl is Maxine’s dark mirror image, a glimpse into a dystopian future that confirms her worst fears about herself. There may be an ensemble cast at play here, but make no mistake: This is Mia Goth’s movie. It’s a stellar, iconic performance in the making, for both roles, and it looks as though we’ll be seeing much more of her very soon with the recently announced Pearl prequel that West and co. shot in secret back-to-back with X.

And even if X wasn’t packing all that under its hood, it would still be an incredible movie purely from a visual standpoint alone. The cinematography, the color composition, and the framing in this film are all absolutely gorgeous. It’s once again highly evocative of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a slasher film with true artistic sensibilities, only trading the former’s brutalist and largely utilitarian shot composition for a far more avant-garde and performative look and feel. The editing similarly plays with convention, delivering an experience that’s as captivating as it is disorienting.

I can’t stress enough how much I loved this film. It somehow manages to feel like one of the freshest slasher films in decades, while at the same time still firmly grounding itself within that same canon and tradition of the iconic films of the genre. It’s gorgeous, it’s scary, it’s moving, and most importantly, it’s a hell of a good time at the movies. If you’ve got the stomach for it, I highly recommend checking this out while it’s still playing on the big screen. Support low budget horror, guys!

Just, you know, maybe don’t see this one with your parents. Also, you probably shouldn’t do what one family in my screening did, and bring your six-year-old son along with you. I’m pretty sure I got to watch that kid develop some deep-seated emotional trauma in real time. And maybe start puberty a few years earlier, too. That’s a lot of blood and boobs for a kid.

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