X (2022)

X first published by Sight and Sound online

Ti West‘s X opens with a visual trick to confound the viewer’s sense of time. A corpse-strewn farmhouse is shown in what appears to be outmoded Academy ratio, until the camera’s forward movement reveals that the vertical extremities of this squared image are in fact the sides of an adjacent building’s door frame, shot in regular, if occluded, widescreen. The year is 1979, also in the past, if not quite the period (1932-1952) when 1.375:1 was standard (although it was still, significantly, used on the 16mm cameras employed for cheap porn shoots1Hat tip to Peter Nellhaus for reminding me of this.) – and it will transpire that the house’s owners were certainly old enough to have grown up with movies in Academy ratio. For a fleeting moment, these two aspect ratios (old-fashioned Academy and newer widescreen) – which offer two very different modes of looking – become aligned. X is preoccupied with voyeurism across different generations, bringing together two genres – horror and porn – associated not just with the MPAA’s X rating, but also with the male gaze. That gaze will be subverted and skewered, as different female characters emerge as the ones both watching, and acting on what they see. 

If the prologue’s farmhouse chronicles deaths foretold, the rest of X tracks events leading up to this bloodbath, beginning a day earlier with six young adults heading there to shoot a porno. The opening vista of carnage, the pornographers’ combi van and the rural setting all promise a scenario akin to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), while the presence of an alligator points to Hooper’s Eaten Alive (1977) – but West’s horror is always coloured by the erotic focus of the hardcore film-within-a-film The Farmer’s Daughters, even as its director RJ (Owen Campbell) harbours hilariously improbable pretensions that he is shooting an arthouse experiment. After observing what is happening in front of the camera, RJ’s innocent girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) decides that she wants a piece of the action herself, exposing RJ’s jealousy and hypocrisy. She insists that it will be fine to introduce a new character midway through, citing Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) even as RJ objects that his film is not horror. X can have it both ways.

It is not just Lorraine who watches. From the main farmhouse, elderly Pearl has spotted starlet Maxine Minx, in whose narcissistic ambitions she sees a younger, more nubile version of herself reflected (both are played by Mia Goth). X‘s ensuing crimes of passion and perversion explore the cinematic taboo of senescent lust, while setting Maxine – who, were she still alive today, would be approaching Pearl’s age – upon a long, dark road towards her own future of deep trauma and frustrated desire. Transgressively macabre and blackly funny, X is a film of shocking, messy money shots.

strap: Ti West’s self-rating doubly-retro time-piece merges porn and horror, younger and older generations, and equally lustful male and female gazes.

Anton Bitel

  • 1
    Hat tip to Peter Nellhaus for reminding me of this.