After about 6 years away from filmmaking, Ti West has returned with X. He quickly gained a reputation in the genre after his 2009 The House of the Devil, an incredibly tense period piece about a satanic cult, but as he put it in an interview with Mike Muncer of the Evolution of Horror podcast, “you run the risk of sort of repeating yourself.” With X he explores the intersection of pornography and horror, the explosion of the sex and violence in films of the 70s and 80s.
X stars Mia Goth as Maxine, a young dancer / adult film star determined to make a name for herself in the industry and become famous. Wayne, an adult film producer, rents a boarding house in rural Texas to shoot The Farmer’s Daughters with RJ and Lorraine working production and starring Maxine, Bobby-Lynn and Jackson. But the elderly couple living in the main house can’t keep away from the alluring activities of these youths. This movie succeeds in creating very likable characters, who deviate from the standard slasher archetypes. Rather than wanting to watch them all be killed, the audience instead hopes they can make it out alive.
The film centers youth and youthfulness in ways that aren’t often explored in the genre. Howard and Pearl, the elderly couple who’ve rented the house to the filmmakers, are surprisingly empathetic characters. While an unfortunate portion of the horror seemingly relies on depicting “old bodies,” and particularly an “old female body,” as repulsive, I got the impression that West is challenging audiences to question why they respond to these bodies in this way. Especially considering those empathetic moments.
Peppered with references and Easter eggs throughout, X delivers an original and innovative script and style that is simultaneously new and fun while also familiar and comfortable. Subversions of the classically conservative slasher sub-genre come naturally and are consistently exciting. West’s visual style creates really incredible long shots and exposition that lay bare the landscape and texture of these films. At times the viewer may recognize some of these techniques and motifs from his prior, reimagined and striking.
It’s also refreshingly sex positive. The content of slashers and pornos can lend themselves so easily to trashy or sleazy moviemaking, but almost everything about West’s handling of these genres is both realistic and respectful. Toying with concepts like ‘the male gaze,’ West manages to make a sexual movie that doesn’t feel predatory or misogynistic. I particularly appreciated the ways Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) was filmed and depicted. What the uninitiated would expect from both the male and female pornographers—how they’d be expected to act and treat each other off camera—is subverted consistently. They’re not unintelligent, trashy or ashamed of themselves. They’re professionals.
I’m reminded of how people who don’t like horror movies tend to think that horror filmmakers are sick and depraved. But I’ve heard at least anecdotally that the horror giants—like Wes Craven, John Carpenter—have a sincere and deep kindness about them, an empathy that likely allows them to make such affective (and terrifying) films.
Ti West’s X is a breath of fresh air. It’s a film that’ll make you laugh, wince, jump and maybe even tear up. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a movie for you.