‘X’ is a Solid Slasher That Strives for More

With films like Midsommar, Under the Skin, and now X, which hit theaters this past Friday, A24’s slate of off-kilter horror has been shaping up nicely. Gristly, grainy, and unapologetically horny, X is certainly a love letter to some of the more blue aspects of ’70s horror. But beneath it’s bloody, sleazy, coke-addled exterior, the film is committed to making its own voice heard through the cacophony of homage. While familiar on the surface, it manages to tap into an unconventional but very real fear in a way that few horror films do; the inevitable process of aging and decay. The first horror film from director Ti West (V/H/S, The House of the Devil) in nearly a decade, X balances its nostalgia and originality well. And while it may fall just short of a seat at the head table of A24’s recent horror triumphs, it is undoubtedly a wild and enjoyable watch, and a must-see for any fan of the genre.

Set against the all-too-familiar backdrop of rural Texas in the 1970s, follows a cadre of young Hollywood hopefuls who set out to shoot an adult film that will rocket them to a life of stardom and luxury. It focuses primarily on Maxine (Mia Goth), who has aspirations of being America’s next Bambi Woods, and is involved with the film’s sickeningly suave self-appointed “executive producer.” After a quick van ride over a cattle-corpse strewn highway, our cast arrives at their filming location, a a small boarding house tucked away on a rural farm. Owned by the volatile and cantankerous Howard and his evidently frail wife Pearl, the film’s producer Wayne is less than forthcoming with details about what it is they’re doing on the property. And within 24 hours, his little omission ends with stack of dead bodies, a blood-splattered farm, and a heap of questions for the local sheriff.

On the way to the farm, Bobby-Lynne, one of the film’s stars played by Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) refers to their movie, and its cast in general, as a foxy car wreck. People won’t be able to look away, even if they wanted to. It’s an apt analogy for X as a whole, which offers sex, violence and the disgusting in equal measure. With its traditional premise and ’70s-tinged visuals, this movie could have stood on it’s own just fine as a fun, straight-forwards slasher flick. However, it strives to accomplish a lot more than just honor the legacy it is a part of. And for the most part, it succeeds.

Sex has always been a staple of the horror genre, and it is that pillar on which X skillfully rests its premise. The film capitalizes on its erotic elements, utilizing them as a vehicle to tap into much deeper, more resonant fears than the terror of an old lady hunting you with a knife. The real horror of X is the inexorable march to decrepitude all humans find themselves on. It’s the inalienable truth that youth and and beauty are perpetually fading, and that there is nothing you can do to stymie the leak.

The fear comes not from the existential fact of mortality, but from the actual process of aging and deterioration that precedes it. And X approaches that fear in two primary ways. On one hand, there is simply the sheer horror of having to watch your own body decay right before your own eyes. The film is packed with elements almost akin to body horror. Saggy leathery skin riddled with liver spots and pus-soaked bandages. Gnarled, bloody hands caressing smooth, youthful skin. And combining those visuals with overtones of sex and eroticism only serves to heighten the discomfort when they’re on screen. The film certainly knows how to play its audience so that you’re practically begging it not to show you what you know is about to happen (if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what scene I’m talking about).

Pearl and Maxine, both of the characters played by Mia Goth.
Image via A24

The other major way X explores the primal fear of aging is less overt than just the physical. It’s the innate fear of rejection that comes with the process. Pearl, the film’s primary killer, and Maxine, the film’s protagonist and the object of Pearl’s obsession, are both played by Mia Goth. By cleverly positing these two characters in parallel to one another, X manages to confront its audience with a fear that extends beyond basic horror. It’s the inescapable reality that, someday, that will be you. That eventually you will be the one who’s been discarded and tossed aside in favor of some new pretty young thing, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it. It’s a fear that seems to transcend horror, but still blends with the genre seamlessly.

Limited as they may be, the film is not without its flaws. Despite the fact that the story’s primary engine is the relationship between Maxine and Pearl, their dynamic is barely fleshed out. Interactions are kept to a minimum and they exchange almost no dialogue. It’s a glaring missed opportunity to explore the film’s most original and interesting components. And despite leaning heavily on the ’70s slasher schtick, the deaths are unimaginative and feel mostly like a sidenote while still managing to eat up a large portion of the film’s runtime.

Even with it’s shortcomings, is a hell of a good time, and a rousing return to horror for director Ti West. It employs its nostalgic elements well, and doesn’t use them to obfuscate its own deficiencies. And while I would have like to see it explore some of its own original ideas further, that is ultimately a testament to how successful those ideas were. It’s a gratuitously bloody, sexy, messy knockout of a film that doesn’t pull a single punch, and is undoubtedly on a fast-track bound for contemporary cult status.

Written by Max McHone

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