Sex, gore and double roles: How A24 slasher ‘X’ mines the horrors of growing old
Mild spoilers for Ti West’s “X” follow. To the power of independent cinema.
Mia Goth really wasn’t interested in making another horror film. Then she read the surprising and provocative script for “X,” writer-director Ti West’s blood-soaked return to the genre after nearly a decade, about an amateur porn crew whose film shoot on a rural Texas farm sends their geriatric hosts into a murderous tizzy.
Channeling exploitation cinema influences through a decidedly modern lens, the rollicking ’70s-style slasher, in theaters now, oozes smart and salacious thrills under the banner of art-house distributor A24. As the credits roll on the company’s first horror franchise, many moviegoers will be surprised to discover the film’s wildest gambit, which is also the reason Goth came aboard West’s R-rated sex- and gore-fueled romp.
In “X,” Goth (“Suspiria,” “High Life”) is transfixing as Maxine, a cocaine-fueled stripper eyeing adult film stardom as her ticket to the life she craves. And in a second role, transformed by makeup and prosthetics by Weta Workshop, she also plays Pearl, one of the farm’s elderly owners and the film’s surprising villain, driven to violence by her lusty envy of the nubile youngsters getting busy in her boardinghouse.
‘Pearl,’ starring Mia Goth, was filmed in secret in part because of COVID-19 restrictions
The physical and psychological challenge of embodying two characters as perversely simpatico souls “was just not something that comes your way every day,” Goth said recently over video chat, her soft-spoken voice startlingly incongruous with her chameleonic turns in the critically acclaimed “X.” “They see each other very much in themselves. That’s rather invigorating. And for Maxine, it’s pretty terrifying.”
It was a feat not just anyone could execute. Even as he assembled his cast for his most ambitious film yet, West — known for breathing fresh life into horror in 2009’s “The House of the Devil,” 2011’s “The Innkeepers” and 2013’s “The Sacrament” — wasn’t sure he’d find an actor who could pull off the trick, until his first meeting with Goth. “I remember her saying, ‘I could kill this,’” said West. “And I was like, ‘I believe you.’”
To do it, Goth switched between characters on different days and weeks, spent eight hours at a time in a makeup chair and performed opposite body doubles. Where Maxine’s sexual openness was at times “challenging to find within my own self — but also very liberating,” said Goth, playing Pearl required her to stay within the physical range of an octogenarian while losing herself in the character’s gory reveries.
Of all the conceptual big swings in “X” — to be followed by “Pearl,” a prequel secretly filmed back-to-back with “X” last year, starring and co-written by Goth — the unusual dual role tapped into the intentional way West, who also co-edited the film with David Kashevaroff, sought to highlight film craft in his return to horror. Like the thrill he still gets from the shark in “Jaws” or from watching another virtuosic Spielberg shot glide impossibly through the recent “West Side Story,” West wanted to reignite a reverence for movie magic for audiences — and maybe himself too.
Shot outside Whanganui, New Zealand, on immersive sets built by production designer Tom Hammock (“Godzilla vs. Kong”) and lensed with evocative visual style by cinematographer Eliot Rockett, the world of “X” is texturally dense by design, rife with film references, cinematic nods and Easter eggs for West’s other movies, including “Pearl.”
After his last feature, the 2016 western “In a Valley of Violence,” West spent several years directing television. Drawn back to genre but finding mainstream horror somewhat uninspiring, he wrote “X” at the intersection of independent horror and porn — two “symbiotic” outliers of Hollywood. Even that choice was a risk, West admits; in the wrong hands, the same film could easily veer into lurid territory. Had A24 said no, he said, “I don’t think I would have made the movie.”
The ideas within “X” intrigued him. Setting it in 1979 against the waning American New Wave, he invented an ensemble of wannabe filmmakers shooting a XXX-rated independent movie in the cash-strapped Texas countryside. Instead of rural cannibals or masked stalkers, he anchored the horrors of “X” in universal fears of getting older, growing obsolete and the terror of living a life unfulfilled — the kind of existential dread just about anyone, perhaps especially artist types, might relate to.
It’s what Brittany Snow, alum of the “Pitch Perfect” films, connected with when she read “X.” “I remember saying to [West], ‘Wow, you made a movie about the fear that takes hold of you when you’re getting older,’” said Snow, who goes boldly against type as the shrewd and uninhibited Bobby-Lynne. “The scariest part of the whole movie is that you feel for the villains because we’re all going to be those people eventually.”
The scariest part of the whole movie is that you feel for the villains.
— Brittany Snow
“X” follows the ragtag crew of “The Farmer’s Daughters,” led by executive producer Wayne (Martin Henderson), a smooth talker scheming to hit “Debbie Does Dallas” numbers on the emerging home video market; swingers Bobby-Lynne (Snow) and ex-Marine Jackson Hole (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi); and Wayne’s much younger fiancee, Maxine (Goth), who pack into a van with director RJ (Owen Campbell), a cinephile who wants to elevate the pic with “a touch of the avant-garde,” and his conservative gal pal Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who may want to do more than just hold the boom mic.
Filming their hardcore opus under the puritanical nose of the gun-toting farmstead’s owner, Howard (Stephen Ure), who worries that his ailing wife, Pearl, will catch wind of their guests’ sordid activities, the crew trades philosophical barbs over art, sex and freedom when they’re not getting down to business, singing a little Fleetwood Mac and taking dips in a gator-filled pond — until tensions erupt into bloodshed.
The horrors are punctuated by sound design by Graham Reznick (“Deadwax,” “Until Dawn”) and an ethereal score by composer Tyler Bates and musician Chelsea Wolfe, whose cover of the 1918 tune “Oui, Oui, Marie” serves as the film’s haunting theme.
Before signing on to a role involving intimate scenes, nudity and depictions of sex work, however, Snow had questions for West.
“I wanted to know why he wanted to make something like this, and I wanted to know that he was a man who had a lens on this that wasn’t going to be gratuitous or exploitative of women in general, and of women as sexual objects at that time,” said Snow, who is now prepping her own directorial debut, “September 17th,” with a cast including “X” co-star Mescudi. “But I think what was at the core of what he wanted to do was so much more intelligent and sex-positive and women-empowering.”
In Bobby-Lynne, a Southern belle using what God gave her to pursue her white-picket dreams, she wanted to do justice to women like her character who are easily misunderstood, onscreen and off. “There was a way of playing it that disrespected that type of woman, and there was a way of playing it that actually made her the smartest woman in the room,” she said. For inspiration, she studied Dolly Parton interviews to imbue Bobby-Lynne with a Dolly-esque sense of feminine self-awareness.
“Like Dolly Parton, Bobby-Lynne is aware of what she’s doing, but she owns it and she has the confidence and the swagger to be able to turn it on and off because she realizes it’s a means to an end,” said Snow. “It’s almost a character that she’s putting on as an occupation.”
In a genre hallmarked by “final girl” tropes in which virginal young women are usually the ones who outlast their peers, “X” offers a rebuttal in its spectrum of characters who have agency over their sexual wants and general desires. Even its empathy for Howard and Pearl argues that jealousy, repression and judgment are poisons that lead to violence — and no one, even us watching, is necessarily immune.
Plumbing those depths felt like a rare opportunity in a horror project, said Ortega, a former Disney star with a recent turn in “Scream” who, at 18, was the youngest member of the cast. As the quiet and watchful Lorraine, Ortega wanted to see her character upend the expectations projected onto her — by her boyfriend, by the other crew members and by the audience itself.
“[Lorraine] is a conservative Christian girl who has an openness to her that isn’t really expected for somebody like her during this time,” she said. “What I loved about this project was that everything that you thought you knew about a period piece and a horror film, it’s all the opposite. It comes off as something that could be very grotesque or exploiting characters and their bodies, but the undercurrent and slow burn of it all is realizing that everything that you think you know, you don’t know.”
It helped that, in tackling their sex scenes, intimacy coordinator and actress Tandi Wright “was an actual angel” who worked to get the cast comfortable with actions that were motivated by and deepened their understanding of their characters, said Snow. Wright was so beloved by the cast and crew that during production on “X,” West suggested she tape an audition to play Goth’s German mother in the WWI-set prequel that was scheduled to film after the first movie wrapped.
“Owen [Campbell] shot it, and Martin [Henderson] read opposite her,” said West. “I remember coming to set the next day and being like, ‘Tandi, you’re in the movie.’”
West knew going in that the setting of “X” would inevitably invite comparisons to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 slasher classic “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” — and that he could use that to his advantage. (The second film, “Pearl,” takes its cinematic cues from Douglas Sirk melodramas and Disney movies.)
To that end, he used every trick in his toolbox to lean into genre assumptions and tease viewers into a false sense of familiarity, including working with his cast to create dimensional, compelling characters that no one would want to see meet a grisly end.
“I was like, well, let them think it, and then let them incorrectly follow their expectations one way down the road of the movie,” said West. “Then, when we go a different direction, they’re going to go, ‘Wait, what?’ Once a modern audience goes, ‘Wait, what?’ as a filmmaker, you kind of have them because otherwise, everyone’s very hip to what’s coming.”
“But I’m hoping that a quarter or halfway through the movie, you’re like, ‘I actually don’t know who’s not going to make it because there aren’t really throwaway characters — everybody has their own personality, their own ambitions, their own charm. And even though I signed up for a movie to see everybody die, I’m not sure if I want anyone to die.’”
He has designs on a third film to complete the trilogy, but A24 hasn’t yet dated “Pearl,” which will rewind in time to explore the young Pearl’s backstory circa 1918.
“I’m interested to see what people think of ‘X,’ and then I’m interested to see how they feel about ‘Pearl,’” he said, “and then I’m interested to see how they feel about them both together. And if we are fortunate enough to then do another one. … There’s something interesting to me about the bigger picture of it all because I’ve never had that opportunity. It’s unlikely I’ll have that opportunity again.”
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