Blending the Horrific, the Religious, and the Erotic
As I settled into a theater seat to watch X–Ti West’s new 70s-era slasher horror–the two teenagers behind me were apparently playing a word association game. One of them whispered to the other–“Jesus”–when production company “Little Lamb” flashed across the screen.
While the first-century religious leader may not have anything explicitly to do with the production studios behind X, this still seemed like a weirdly appropriate introduction to the horror film, which West imbues with prominent themes of evangelical purity culture and religious trauma.
The A24 picture centers a somewhat-meta narrative: In 1979, a group of filmmakers pay to stay at a dilapidated Texas farmhouse. It’s the perfect setting for their pornography feature in the making, The Farmer’s Daughters. Spearheaded by easy-going producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), the project stands to gain from indie director RJ’s (Owen Campbell) arthouse approach.
But as Bobby-Lynn (Brittany Snow) confidently asserts, the production would be nothing without its subjects: herself, her “sometimes” boyfriend Jackson (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi), and rising star Maxine (Mia Goth). RJ’s girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) assists on the technical side, her insinuated Christianity keeping her skeptical of the film, but intrigued nonetheless by the actors’ comfortable sexuality.
It’s an eclectic crew they make, and one that doesn’t appear to belong in the rural, religious environment. They’re compelled to be discreet due to the callous nature of their host, Howard (Stephen Ure), and his mysterious wife, Pearl (also played by Goth, inciting a striking comparison between her two characters). Unbeknownst to the wannabe stars, a discovery of their ‘deviant’ sensual pursuits would have disastrous (and bloody) consequences.
While the tension intensifies slowly but masterfully, the first half of X focuses its attention mainly on character building and weaving in its major themes. And whereas no explicit horror takes place until at least the halfway point, a sense of eerie anticipation underscores the entire viewing experience. It is guiding hints–not misdirection–that arrest our attention and urge questions leading into the slasher’s killings. Who will be the killer? What are their motivations? X peels back these layers while revelling in clever and gory kills that shock and horrify and still delight in their absurdity.
Drawing inspiration from films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, West’s approach to the slasher genre salutes its pioneers. The very beginning scene evokes the old-school, squared aspect ratio–only to reveal this as a smart trick of the camera, the scene having been framed by open barn doors. It also honors its setting of ‘70s rural Texas, down to featuring only the local beer of the period. But way beyond beer cans and aspect ratios, West undertakes something entirely new–and it’s through Goth’s fictional counterparts and their opposing ideals.
“I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” Maxine’s oft-repeated mantra finds vivid antiparallelism in Pearl’s character and roots in biblical themes. The teachings of a Christian televangelist pervade the Texas town, including Howard’s and Pearl’s home.
They spread the message of eternal life given to those who are not worthy–of suppressing one’s true desires in order to be deserving of such life. And these religious ideals inform and enrich every subject of the film: particularly the divide between generations, between the sexually liberated and sexually repressed. It is not for shock value, then, that X focuses on sex and pornography, as these central themes are set compellingly against West’s concept of oppressive religious ideology–the true villain of the slasher horror.
Although religious themes are not at all new to the horror genre, X uniquely and effortlessly weaves a story of aging, sex, loss, and liberation in a world so affected by a conservative Christian belief system. The result is a slasher that’s poignant, meaningful–and absolutely thrilling.
Verdict - 10/10