Ti West and Rob Zombie are two sides of the same coin. Although superficially their movies do not look alike at all, their connected at the hip because both filmmakers through their work express similar emotions; only differently. And X might be the definitive lynchpin between them.
Following a brief departure from feature work when he got busy working in a televisual format (Scream, Wayward Pines, etc.) Ti West has made his way back to the big screen with X, which also marks his return to the genre of horror, his home turf. This succinct little nugget of genre filmmaking is in fact much more than just a return to the well – it is a return to form.
Set in 1979, X tells a story familiar to any horror hound of a group of young people who make their way into the rural wastelands of Texas only to find trouble they did not know they were asking for with their mere presence away from city lights. We follow Maxine (Mia Goth), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and Jackson (Scott Mescudi), young and supple performers set to star in an indie porno movie produced and organized by a guy called Wayne (Martin Henderson). Joined by RJ (Owen Campbell), an ambitious director bent on turning a dirty movie into an avant-garde work of art, and his repressed girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), they all rent a barn in the middle of nowhere from an archetypally scary-looking octogenarian (Stephen Ure) and his mysteriously withdrawn wife Pearl (Mia Goth again, this time under lots of make-up). Naturally, what they don’t know is that the old couple have a dirty little secret which is quickly going to put the group in a position where they will have to fight for their lives.
If this synopsis alone looks familiar, it is most certainly purposeful as Ti West (who wrote, produced, edited, and directed it) clearly intends to reconnect with his beloved era, the 1970s, in many ways. It is most assuredly no accident the film is set in 1979 or that it opens in a way that it does. It is as though West was trying not to leave any doubts as to what he wanted the viewer to think about while watching the film, which begins with a local sheriff pulling up at a farmhouse to investigate a crime scene. He dances between dismembered bodies, makes sure not to step in any of the numerous puddles of blood only to make a shocking discovery in the basement – a discovery we are not allowed to see before we are explicitly told that what we just witnessed was the ending of the movie.
Thus, the rubber band of suspense is set up as we are promptly transported back in time to meet the group of these young men and women who – as we now have been made acutely aware of – are waltzing into a slaughterhouse in blissful ignorance. And it’s not as though Ti West was pretending this was anything new or refreshing in any way. He is knowingly and purposefully leading both us and his characters into the maw of despair ripped straight out of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre… which is exactly what Rob Zombie would have done.
This is where the idea of these two filmmakers being two sides of the same coin comes into play because Ti West enters the same territory from a different angle and imbues this now archetypal scenario of lambs being led to a slaughter in the backwoods of America with a completely different energy. You could honestly expect Rob Zombie’s version of X to quickly devolve into a gory spectacle aimed to elicit shock and disgust by way of immersing the viewer in the tactile festival of blood and dismemberment, while leaving suspense at the door. Meanwhile, Ti West – who is equally enamoured with the same types of movies – does the opposite. He leaves out the violence and relishes in stretching that rubber band of suspense to the absolute limits, so much that the viewer will eventually beg for a resolution, regardless of how jumpy or gruesome it might be.
Anyone who’s ever seen any of Ti West’s previous outings (such as The Innkeepers or The House of the Devil) will know exactly what I mean. This man’s directorial command is so complete and purposeful that he can generate and maintain organic Hitchcockian suspense and dread for long enough to become torturous but never gratuitously tiresome. By using simple camera techniques and editing decisions he can make us inhabit the world of the film and drag us through the coals as we are begging for something familiar and definitive to happen to the characters. Such is the case with X, where a good example of West’s ability to unnerve the viewer is when Mia Goth’s Maxine finds a pond behind the barn they rented. She looks around for a peaceful place to gather herself before her moment in the limelight and decides to go for a swim in the pond. What she does not know is that she is being watched… both by a mysterious old woman whose involvement in the upcoming terrors is going to come into play a bit later, and by an alligator.
As we observe the serenity of Maxine’s existence, visually referencing Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, the camera blissfully informs us there is a predator in the pond before concentrating on Maxine again. Now we know what Maxine doesn’t know and begin clenching our fists in preparation for what is surely going to be a gory death. Because we all watched enough animal attack horror movies to see where this scene is going. Only difference is that it isn’t going where we think it is, or where we would hope it should in a familiar horror movie. We spend a good chunk of time looking at Maxine casually swim back to the pier completely unaware of a large reptile slowly closing the distance between them. She eventually gets out of the water without ever noticing she was in mortal danger and the scene ends there.
So, what was its purpose anyway? First, most obviously it was to set up the alligator in the pond because it may or may not (and it does!) come back into play a bit later in the film. Secondly and most importantly, by refusing to release the built-up suspense, Ti West is priming the audience for what’s to come. He intentionally spends three-quarters of the film engaging in similarly unresolved set-ups that only occasionally vent some of its pressure by way of the occasional fake-out scare. However, even those scare tactics, cheap as they are in principle, do not feel forced or uninspired in the slightest. In fact, they feel welcome because they offer a modicum of genre-related familiarity to cut through the bulk of what Ti West is trying to achieve – which is to unnerve.
And how he truly gets under your skin goes beyond gratuitous violence that other Hooper disciples like Rob Zombie would have considered sufficient. I found utterly fascinating how X finds its way into the psyche of modern viewers who are mostly desensitized to graphic violence. We’ve seen it all. It is no longer a preserve of the deranged who would scour message boards in search for upsetting imagery; we get it daily. Just by ‘doomscrolling’ through your Twitter and IG you will inadvertently expose your brain to images which would have been branded too hot for TV just a mere decade ago. Naturally, cinema has been responding accordingly to this growing society-wide desensitization to gruesome violence by trickling it into more movies and having the ratings boards blunt their instruments in response (to avoid a situation where simply too many films are heavily age-restricted).
Therefore, it’s no longer as shocking (it still is shocking, let’s not forget that) to see a gruesome murder scene in film that may or may not involve dismemberment, gore, and exquisitely detailed wound make-up. Most people are easily capable of shrugging it off or getting used to it after a short adjustment period. I remember vividly the audiences cheering in adrenaline-infused frenzy at the final act of Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead, which is just superbly violent and gruesome.
Ti West seems perfectly cognizant of this phenomenon and to this effect he focuses his efforts on a different type of horrific imagery that many (especially younger viewers) may find reprehensible – the body horror of ageing. I found it truly remarkable that the audience I saw X with was perfectly on board with gore, violence and explicit (though still respectfully simulated, I should hope) sex scenes, but drew a line at watching an incredibly old woman undress. And this old woman was Mia Goth in stunning make-up. They could not stand the sight of two wrinkled and downright ugly people banging it out on the bed, complete with moans, thrusts, bare asses showing and dangerous creaks of the bedframe… which also coincided with Ti West once more executing a masterclass of organic suspense by having us clench our teeth in dread as the main character was trying to escape from under that very bed at the same time.
At least two people walked out. And it makes you wonder why. Is it because they had enough of the experience as a whole? Were they just dissatisfied with the movie in general? Or was this scene what got to them in the end?
Based on their positive responses to prior scenes of horror and gore X already committed to, I am willing to assume it was the latter. Ti West’s horror got to them in a way they didn’t expect which makes X a stunningly successful piece of genre filmmaking. Granted, in many ways it is hardly original, and it wears its elements of homage with pride; however, Ti West uses these familiar elements most horror hounds will easily identify and uses them as ingredients in a genre experiment that elevates their flavour profile, as opposed to merely intensifying them. X is an incredibly smart and concise love letter to the 1970s that is equally fit to stand on its own two feet in the genre landscape of 2022. Intelligent, audacious, intense and occasionally undercut by tactically placed moments of levity, X is a thinking man’s horror movie that doesn’t ever draw too much attention to its cerebral facet of analysis.
Ti West wants you to have fun watching this exercise in visceral intensity and only then emerge stewing with thoughts on what else could be hiding underneath the narrative plane. He never wants you to disengage from what is happening on the screen to think about thematic ramifications, allegorical interpretations or social underpinnings of what’s going on. He wants you to have a great time watching these unsuspecting people get pegged off one by one like lab rats in an experimental, trap-infested maze of organic suspense. Only then does he want you to have a conversation about female empowerment, pressures to succeed, the taboo body horror of growing old, societal acceptance of ageing or lack thereof, meta-observations about cinema and so on. Because at the end of the day, Ti West isn’t a preacher as much as he is an entertainer. What is more, he is now a fully-fledged torchbearer of modern exploitation cinema together with Rob Zombie, Fede Alvarez and others.