With movies like Midsommar, Under the skinand now x, which hit theaters last Friday, A24’s quirky horror slate has gone down well. Gristly, gritty and shamelessly horny, X is certainly a love letter to some of the bluest aspects of ’70s horror. tributes. Although familiar on the surface, it manages to tap into an unconventional yet very real fear in a way few horror movies do; the inevitable process of aging and decay. Director Ti West’s first horror film (V/H/S, The Devil’s House) in nearly a decade, X balances its nostalgia and originality well. And while it might miss a seat at the head table of A24’s recent horror triumphs, it’s undoubtedly a wild and enjoyable watch, and a must-have for any fan of the genre.
In the all-too-familiar setting of rural Texas in the 1970s, X follows a group of young Hollywood hopefuls who set out to shoot an adult film that will propel them to a life of stardom and luxury. It primarily focuses on Maxine (Mia Goth), who aspires to be America’s next Bambi Woods, and is involved as the film’s self-proclaimed, suave, sickening “executive producer.” After a quick van ride on a highway strewn with dead cattle, our actors arrive at their filming location, a small guesthouse tucked away on a rural farm. Owned by the volatile and cantankerous Howard and his obviously frail wife Pearl, the film’s producer Wayne is less than forthcoming with details of what they’re doing on the property. And within 24 hours, his little omission ends in a pile of dead bodies, a blood-splattered farmhouse, and a pile of questions for the local sheriff.
On the way to the farm, Bobby-Lynne, one of the stars of the film played by Brittany Snow (Perfect) refers to their film, and its cast in general, as a crafty car wreck. People won’t be able to look away, even if they wanted to. It’s a good analogy for X as a whole, which offers sex, violence and the disgusting in equal parts. With its traditional premise and 70s-tinged visuals, this film could have stood on its own as a fun, straightforward slasher flick. However, he strives to accomplish much more than simply honor the legacy of which he is a part. And for the most part, it succeeds.
Sex has always been a staple of the horror genre, and it’s that pillar on which X cleverly rests its premise. The film capitalizes on its erotic elements, using them as a vehicle to tap into much deeper and more resonant fears than the terror of an old lady chasing you with a knife. The real horror of X is the inexorable march towards decrepitude in which all humans find themselves. It is the inalienable truth that youth and beauty perpetually fade away, and there is nothing you can do to thwart the flight.
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 suck in two main ways. On the one hand, there is simply the horror of having to watch your own body decompose before your very eyes. The film is full of elements almost akin to body horror. Loose, leathery skin riddled with liver spots and pus-soaked bandages. Gnarled, bloody hands caressing smooth, youthful skin. And combining these visuals with overtones of sex and eroticism only adds to the discomfort when they’re on screen. The movie certainly knows how to play its audience so you’re practically begging it not to show you what you know is going to happen (if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what scene I’m talking about).
The other great way X explores the primal fear of aging is less overt than just the physical. It is the innate fear of rejection that accompanies the process. Pearl, the film’s main killer, and Maxine, the film’s protagonist and object of Pearl’s obsession, are both played by Mia Goth. By cleverly placing these two characters parallel to each other, X manages to confront its audience with a fear that goes beyond basic horror. It is the inescapable reality that one day it will be you. That you’ll end up being the one tossed out and pushed aside in favor of a new pretty young thing, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s a scare that seems to transcend horror, but still blends seamlessly into the genre.
As limited as it is, the film is not without flaws. Despite the fact that the main driver of the story 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 ’70s schtick slasher, the deaths lack imagination and mostly feel like a side note while still managing to swallow up much of the movie’s running time.
Even with its flaws, X is one hell of a good time, and a rousing return to horror for director Ti West. It uses its nostalgic elements well and doesn’t use them to mask its own shortcomings. And while I would have liked to see him explore some of his own original ideas more, it’s ultimately a testament to the success of those ideas. It’s a bloody, sexy, messy gratuitous knockout of a film that doesn’t pull a single punch, and is undoubtedly on a fast track to contemporary cult status.