dir. Ti West, 2022

Mia Goth as Maxine is floating in the middle of a pond; only her face is above the water. She wears bright blue eye-shadow and is looking towards the camera through the corners of her eyes.
Image credit: A24

The term ‘horror’ is an umbrella held over types of film deemed too distressing for everyday viewing. Ti West’s X belongs to one such subgenre that sits close to my heart: slashers. I feel the same sense of warmth when watching American Psycho and Scream as I do some childhood movies — despite their ‘mal’ content.

Slasher flicks are not simply preoccupied by mindless violence. Contemporary action and sci-fi movies contain more gratuitous sequences of harm and torture. The purpose of the slasher is to bring out the creative and comical in the dark and deranged. Spilling blood is only part of the deal. It’s a meshing of high and low art served to the casual movie-goer; intended to be camp and a good time (for the viewer, of course).

I am incurably invested in West’s Pearl trilogy. In spite of their order of release — X, Pearl, and the upcoming MaXXXine — I first saw Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story. The unhinged charm of the prequel gave me a further appreciation for its predecessor. Pearl deserves attention, but X is the movie that sparked the massacre.

The aptly named Mia Goth is the recurring ‘star’ of the Pearl universe. In the realm of eccentric actors, she’s one of the more committed. Her devotion to the craft appears as if she’s making a deal with the devil; every performance is soul-sacrificing. In each movie, Goth revives her key role but under different guises. In X she plays Maxine ‘Minx’, a wannabe pornstar covertly filming a project in a farmhouse unbeknownst to her hosts.

It’s 1979 in Houston, Texas. In her dressing room, Maxine inhales a line through a curled-up dollar bill and stares down her reflection with blue-shadowed eyes. Ms. Minx is under no illusions about her talents: ‘You’re a fuckin’ sex symbol!’, she chants to herself in a vanity mirror. She rejoins her crew, a bunch of silver screen rejects turned earnest pornographers. Their desire: to raise a base art form to a lofty status and hoist themselves up with it. Our aspiring stars crouch in a van headed for the rural filming location. ‘We don’t need Hollywood!’ — proclaims producer-slash-driver Wayne (Martin Henderson). He steers the vehicle away and we see ‘PLOWING SERVICE’ pasted on its side. Porn has always relied on the sly ambiguity of double entendres.

En route Maxine flips through a manuscript for The Farmer’s Daughters. During a pit stop the gas station TV rings with self-righteous televangelist patter. A cashier throws a dirty look but withholds comments. The van passes by an accident between a truck and some cattle; the actors don queasy expressions as tyres mash flesh onto hot tarmac. An indecisive transition between scenes is cut like lightning flashes. It’s a deadly premonition of the following 24 hours.

At the farm, Maxine strays from the group to take a skinny-dip in the lake. She swims by an alligator and it chases her tail. The close encounter is a near miss but it’s enough to make the heart thump. She withdraws her legs from murky waters, acting unaware of the monster; innocence is a veneer washed over seamier undercurrents. Like all good horror protagonists, Maxine is an anti-hero. Her deviant impulses clash with broadly agreed-upon morals but we root for her survival.

Filming begins: ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’ by Rasputin Stash plays. Beer cans are passed around that say ‘Pearl’ on them in cursive. A West-meets-Goth picture is all about the knowing, kitschy details. Indeed, there’s a harkening back to 70s smut and arthouse horror. X carries markers of the Italian giallo in its thrills, sexploitation and violence. As with Argento’s Suspiria, its soundtrack is cast like incantations — possessed by shudders, whispers and sighs.

Then, murder ensues: blood spurts and gushes in fountains of crimson, limbs are hacked into and heads jerk with fearful eyes darting under flashing red lights. It’s a striking, bloodthirsty display. Slashers are about surrendering to the unholy spectacle. They exorcise dark human impulses through a safe medium whilst elevating the aesthetics of terror. In the business of horror, art and corruption tentatively hold hands. In X, degradation — of art, the body and the self — is the soul of movie-making.