Naysayers of the horror genre claim it’s run out of creativity — “well, they’re just rebooting old series. How many Halloween movies do we really need?”
The truth is, though, horror is having a heyday with new genre-defining films released every week. Ti West’s X is one of these films, mixing nostalgia and modern taste together to make a modern exploitation horror. The film follows a group of adult filmmakers who rent out an elderly couple’s cabin to shoot The Farmer’s Daughters, a film to be released on home video.
Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) is the center of X, her presence both rooted in reality and somehow ethereal like she represented something larger than herself. She’s carefree and coked-up with ambitions to be a big star, all made more complicated by her interactions with Pearl (also played by Goth), the wife in the elderly couple. Pearl takes a special (and uncomfortable) interest in Maxine, which ultimately leads to a bloody night for the adult filmmakers.
Ti West’s direction sinks horror back into its messy origins as b-movie trash, often not regarded any better than pornography, to begin with. The film features scenes from The Farmer’s Daughters as they are being filmed, highlighting the work of stand-outs Brittany Snow as bubbly adult actress Bobby-Lynne, Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) as strong-but-reserved Jackson Hole, and Jenna Ortega as the virginal Lorraine. The four “performers” — Goth, Snow, Mescudi, and Ortega — are easily the charming and memorable characters on the screen, each effortlessly leaning into the complicated relationship X has with modern horror and the genre’s roots.
Goth’s performance, in particular, is mesmerizing. Playing both Maxine and Pearl, she carries duality and kinship throughout the film, especially when the characters interact with each other. Casting Goth as both characters creates a “two sides of the same coin” approach when dealing with sex versus chastity, youth versus old age, and desire versus disgust. These things are not simple opposites in West’s world, instead of complicated interplays tied up in identity and relationship to one’s own body.
Understanding the body is important to this film, not just for sex. Over and over again, the camera sees bodies as objects and temples,.he latter is often cemented with the sound of televangelism in the background. Sex and death — both of which are “in the body” sensations — are juxtaposed often in the film, but not for fear of impurity. The motivation behind X’s killer is their own desire and wish to be desirable.
As a slasher, X definitely delivers the gore with shocking kills, lots of blood, and some hilariously ridiculous kill sequences reminiscent of direct-to-video B-movies. In addition to the fun slasher aspects, West’s film also deals heavily with themes of aging and religion’s role in personal life and society. The cinematography, artistic shots, and “deep” themes could make this “elevated horror” — which, for the record, I think is a problematic term — but West chooses to reject that classification in favor of horror’s roots. Much like James Wan’s Malignant, X is horror for people who love the genre for everything it is and has been.