How Ti West’s Horror Explores Sexual Repression

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Although horror has always been a popular fixture in cinemas around the world, the genre is increasingly showing it’s capacity to serve as a conduit for the expression of cultural and political issues. Horror films are increasingly serving as cautionary tales and allegories about the dangers of nationalism as in The Devil’s Backbone, exploitation of identity as in Get Out, and genocide as in La Llorona. In an increasingly complex political climate, horror has met the zeitgeist head-on, dissecting race relations and class warfare without sacrificing the public thirst for entertainment.

Paying homage to classic horror films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Ti West‘s X goes beyond the trope of sexy teenagers being murdered for being, well, sexy teenagers, and allots significant time to the psychologically complex killers and their motives. Similarly, X’s victims are afforded the space to speak on behalf of their pornographic profession, resulting in a nuanced exploration of the effects of sexual repression.


RELATED: What Is ‘Pearl’? The Prequel to Ti West’s ‘X’ Explained

A group of young and attractive filmmakers set out to “make a good dirty movie” in a property in the middle of nowhere. Surprise, surprise, chaos ensues. But as mentioned, the slash and gore comes after a healthy dose of thematic and character exploration: RJ, (Owen Campbell) is the cinematographer for their would-be masterpiece, “The Farmer’s Daughter” possessing strong artistic urges, delusions of grandeur, and excited by the prospect of creating high art. Conversely Maxine, (Mia Goth) knows she is “special”, and feels owed a life of stardom, with “I will not accept a life I do not deserve”, a constant refrain. Her lover and the film’s producer Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson, bringing out his inner Matthew McConaughey) believes wholeheartedly in his leading lady, and is equally keen on making it big, although perhaps motivated by money more than fame. Our two long-term collaborators Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and her on-again/off-again boyfriend Jackson Hole (Kid Cudi) round off the creatives, as a duo who seem to simply enjoy their work, bringing with them a laid-back sexiness to contrast with Maxine’s ambition. Then there’s incidental boom-operator, RJ’s girlfriend, and curious innocent, Lorraine (Jenny Ortega), seemingly lured in under false pretenses and acting as the “prude” of the group. Lorraine questions the motivations and morality of the entire exercise, initially hovering between reluctance and disgust. But her trepidation is nothing compared to that of the films’ antagonists, Pearl (Goth, sporting some exceptional prosthetics) and Howard (Stephen Ure), an elderly, scruffy, and unhinged couple, apparently together since Pearl’s prima ballerina days. The duo look as though they’re on death’s door, and the only sign of life comes from the constant preaching of an evangelical on their black-and-white television. With their own strict upbringings and the continued dogma being blasted through the living room, it doesn’t take a Masters in forensic psychology to deduce the couple are unimpressed with the magnum opus being shot on their property.

Before things really kick off in Slasherville, Lorraine goes all Diane Sawyer on the group, asking about their feelings surrounding love, and how they can watch people they care about sleeping with others. Each put forward their views, obvious but not simplistic: it’s just a job, it’s fun, it’s a means to a greater end, it has the potential to be high art. All reasonable motivations, therefore why the backlash? According to the brilliantly sassy Bobby-Lynn, “we turn folks on, and that scares them”. In a nice aboutface, Lorraine reveals that she has come to appreciate their work, and in an act of unexpected self assertion, declares that she wants to be involved in the film too. As an actor. Cue the outrage from RJ, the quiet joy from the Maxine, and just a hint of “well heck, lets make this a freakin’ party ya’ll” from Wayne, and you’ve got yourself a cracking character arc! But the love-in can’t last long, as in-between lamenting her lost youth, Pearl has been voyeuristically peering into set, and attempting to seduce Howard with her new-found libido.

Howard’s response to Pearl’s seduction reeks of one giant sigh, pointing to his heart condition and leaving her dressed to the nines and all alone. One gets the impression this is not the first time she has attempted to get Howard’s motor running, and it’s a pitiful scene to watch. With this seemingly habitual act of unconsummated desire, the suggestion that the couple have been together from a young age, and consummed by a world that includes TV evangelists yelling about the evils of sex, it’s little wonder Pearl in particular feels both frustrated and murderously horny. By the time this depressing scene plays out, she has already made a pass at Maxine (and it won’t be the last time) and will soon fail yet again with an attempt at converting RJ to the pleasures of octogenarian sexuality. In X, it is the combination of repressed sexual urges, the sense that others are out enjoying a hedonism she never could, and of a genuine belief that succumbing to these urges is evil which justifies the killing spree.

Eventually Pearl does get what she wants from her hubby and for a moment seems satisfied with the idea that they have found one another again- the morgue accumulating in the basement and backyard may be a thing of the past. But Maxine’s sudden appearance derails the calm, and an unexpected jolt from a corpse is enough to push Howard’s heart over the edge. This turn of events renews Pearl’s bloodlust as well as her name-calling, and it’s not long before she’s back on her pious horse and throwing around ‘whores’ left right and center.

With brilliantly-drawn characters, each given the opportunity to take ownership over their sexuality, X manages to explore several angles of the moralistc attitudes towards sex — both the inhibited and hedonistic given equal airtime. This isn’t a film about titillation or deviance, but one which suggests an avoidance of the very fundamentals of human nature can have dire consequences.


More Than Just a Slasher Flick, Ti West’s ‘X’ Is a Love Letter to the Horror and Pornographic Film Communities

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