FandomWire‘s latest Video Essay explores how X perfects the 70s slasher film.
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X And The 70s Slasher
When watching Ti West’s X for the first time, you might think you are watching a cult classic horror in line with The Evil Dead and The Hills Have Eyes. A film so weird and disturbing yet terrifying that it feels like a relic from the past. In an interview with Forbes, Ti stated, “when I was young watching horror movies, they were one step above porn. Now are made mainly, but not exclusively, by corporations in a very big, safe way and a very big, economic driven model”. Comparing a film like X to that of 2018’s Halloween, 2019’s Child’s Play or 2022’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is impossible as X feels like what those films used to be rather than what they became.
With a film that boasts a 95% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes with Tim Cogshell writing, “This is really great, a throwback to those grindhouse films of, the 1970s”; how exactly is X considered a love letter to the films of the 70s? How did a director known for his previous genre-bending work in V/H/S (VHS) and The House of the Devil create a film so simple yet complex in every possible way? X as a whole feels like the standard slasher where a crazed killer murders a bunch of sex-crazed teens, however, the film does that and more. X combines a strong theme, classic filmmaking, and meta storytelling to make this film a love letter to the 70s slashers.
Slashers are not known for having a theme to resonate with the audience; the films’ goals are always to scare you and disgust you. X definitely does the latter of the two, with the majority of critics calling out how gory it is, like Peter Gray, who wrote, “A nasty-minded slasher with a wicked sense of humor and a taste for blood.” Yet, between the gore that can be described like Eli Roth’s Hostel the film poses a deep message around getting older and wanting to go back to the past. The film’s antagonist of Pearl, portrayed by Mia Goth, is an older woman who is jealous of the teens for how beautiful they are. Pearl herself talks about how beautiful she used to be when she was younger, and all the guys wanted her. Now her husband wants nothing to do with her, and she feels completely alone.
Despite Pearl brutally murdering our group of teens, she carries the examination of the film heavily alongside Maxine, also portrayed by Mia Goth. These two characters contrast each other perfectly but, in the end, are one in the same. Pearl exists as what a wasted life would lead Maxine to, explained by her desire to go back to her youth and change her life. Both of these characters are blindsided by how much they believe their looks impact others. While Maxine wants to use her beauty for everyone to love her before she ages, Pearl wants her beauty back for at least one person to love her. This idea of getting older can be seen throughout the film, with each character representing a unique take on this theme. The character of Lorraine, portrayed by Jenna Ortega, becomes an individual shying away from her naiveness and wants to be considered an adult. Her desire to be an adult leads her to her unfortunate death.
The concept of getting older and either letting go of the past or embracing it can also be seen within the choice of music in the film. Two song choices of “Landslide” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” play immensely into the theme of the film; even though “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is foreshadowing for the death of one of the characters, its “Landslide” that contains the most importance. The song revolves around the fear of regrets or following your dreams, with our two main characters falling into one of those two categories. Pearl is the individual who has the fear of regrets over not making as much use of her youth, while Maxine is the one following her dreams. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays right before a character dies, hinting at their death to the reaper but also the theme of living life to its fullest.
“Don’t Fear the Reaper” is actually a common song in the horror genre, with 1978 and 2007’s Halloween using the song as well as Zombieland and 1996’s Scream. So when watching the film for the first time, you might consider this more of an easter egg or reference as X is filled to the brim with references to Psycho, The Shining, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so many more films. Yet, in this film, the use of music plays a crucial role in the story with the theme of the film that separates it from others.
Filmmaking has changed and improved over the years with the use of green screen and CGI reinventing cinema with films like Inception and Avatar feeling more realistic than the world around us. Now Platelight is used for films like Thor: Love and Thunder, which replaces the need for green screens. When it came to making X, Ti decided to take a classic filmmaking approach, specifically 16-millimeter cameras. Due to filming during the COVID-19 pandemic, getting access to special equipment was near impossible so the crew filmed using regular equipment. In an interview with SlashFilm, Ti said, “We shot on the Sony Venice and used these groovy hawk lenses. I went exhaustively out of my way so that people thought I shot on 16. That’s not so much because of nostalgia for the format. Film offers a certain aesthetic that digital is almost there, but not the same. Especially when you make a movie like this, that is part of the charm of it”.
To continue with the idea of embracing classic filmmaking, lighting was used as a way to create a celluloid feel. In the same interview with SlashFilm, Ti talks about how “in post, there’s a minimal amount of defocus on the whole movie, which takes away some of the sharpness — and then there’s a certain amount of moving grain we shot from film to overlay onto it. All of that sounds like a ton of work, and it’s kind of invisible when you watch the movie because it’s not grindhouse-y or kitschy. It’s there to take the edge off the modernness of the technology”. No technology from the 70s was actually used to create the classic filmmaking feel but rather, it was done in post.
When it came to mixing the use of classic lenses and unique lighting alongside post grain, the film came out resembling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 like the director wanted. The rural Texas setting was direct inspiration from the Leatherface-led film, with a similar but not identical house being used. The use of costuming and props contributes to the classic filmmaking feel as well as practical effects for the gore instead of CGI. Each of the six teens are dressed in very bright 60s/70s outfits, with one actress resembling Marilyn Monroe while Mia Goth wears bright blue eyeshadow, and Kid Cudi wears a 70s pornstache and afro.
While the props themselves aren’t anything special, the use of practical effects could be considered shocking with just how violent this is. The recent Saw films have used less and less practical gore and relied on almost entirely CGI blood, but in this film, the kills ranging from someone’s face being blown off to a pitchfork to the eye were all done practically. Despite the increased cost for making the film this way, it was necessary to make the film feel like the films of the 70s that didn’t rely on CGI. Head molds were used for large chunks of the deaths alongside a fake torso for Kid Cudi and Brittany Snow.
While horror movies are known for their disturbing kills, they also tend to have unique and intriguing stories, with X being no exception. X details a time when the adult film industry was just finding its footing as everyone was wanting to make it big. Ti decided to take two genres at the time, horror and adult films, that were considered outsiders at the time and bring them together. At this time, anyone could be a filmmaker if you made one of those two genres as they would be direct to consumers rather than through a studio which X showcases. The 70s was a huge year for the film industry with The Godfather, Jaws, Superman, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, Rocky, and Alien all releasing during this decade. A sole horror film wouldn’t be successful, but if it was combined with sci-fi or adventure, then the film could be marketed. When Ti (TY) knew he wanted to make a 70s-era film, he took the genre that could never work on its own and combined it with the genre that was considered taboo at the time.
During the 70s and 80s, elements of the adult genre were somewhat present in other horror films in the form of nudity. Halloween, Friday the 13th, and The Last House on the Left are just a few of the films that have an adult subplot. While X definitely has much more nudity than those films, there can actually be some similarities drawn from hormonal teens being clueless to their surroundings.
When it comes to making a film that’s a love letter, that task can’t be an easy one. When it came to X, though, it was a mission that felt necessary for director Ti West. He created a theme that will always be relevant as everyone grows up and has regrets. The contrast between the characters of Pearl and Maxine contributes to the theme as it shows both sides of the theme while the other characters represent the middle ground. The classic filmmaking technique became the most important part of the film though to make it feel like a film from the 70s. The combination of grainy editing, 16-millimeter lenses, and celluloid lighting create the feel of a classic film. To tie everything together, meta storytelling brings the 70s storytelling and modern-day meta films together. The combination of two 70s taboo (TAH-BOO) genres together creates X, a film that is a love letter to the 70s slashers. Thanks for watching, whether it’s from your cabin in the woods or a house in the middle of nowhere in Texas. Be sure to like, subscribe and tune in next time for more great content.