How X and Pearl once again made slasher films unsettling
Ti West and Mia Goth’s ground-breaking method has removed the nostalgia and given the genre a much-needed facelift.
When it comes to the genre of horror, there is a certain fixation with going back to earlier stylistic decisions, especially those made in the 1970s and 1980s, when so many of the films that later became canonical entries for horror fans were first published. The success of Stranger Things, It (2017), and Grady Hendrix’s book My Best Friend’s Exorcism implies they speak to something viewers seek. The genre continuously moves forward while also reaching back with neon lighting, synth music, rock ballads, and characters inspired by John Hughes.
However, exploiting the past to challenge familiarity and instigate discomfiture feels innovative in 2022, and that is precisely what directors Ti West and Mia Goth have accomplished with their companion films, X and Pearl, which were released six months apart by trendy company A24. While using slasher clichés in both movies to explore American moral history and warn viewers of realities they have forgotten, they also succeed in giving the slasher subgenre a much-needed update.
Of course, morality has long been a theme in slasher films. The subgenre has always taken a strict (if largely hypocritical) moral stance where perversion and sexuality invite mortal punishment, starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking Psycho (1960) and continuing through the ’80s heyday that came after Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
breaking every rule
Whether intentional or not, the rules to surviving a slasher movie, outlined in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), speak to thinly veiled racist and misogynistic values of Reagan-era politics and Satanic Panic fear-mongering ginned up by parents’ groups. With his slasher-adjacent breakthrough The House Of The Devil, West masterfully conveyed this recognisable feeling (2009). However, the 1978 drama X isn’t concerned in retelling what we already know or presenting reality through the prism of a previous administration.
While Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the setting for X immediately came to mind, the movie is more focused on invitation than violation. Instead of introducing viewers to a bunch of aspiring young filmmakers who just so happen to make porn, West reimagines morally bankrupt porn stars, corrupt producers, and a generally filthy and cynical ’70s milieu.
Maxine (Mia Goth), Wayne (Martin Henderson), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Jackson (Scott Mescudi), RJ (Owen Campbell), and Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) not only support what they’re doing but see it as a service, an exhibition, and a showcase of their youth. It’s a pro-sex viewpoint as well as one that supports filmmaking. However, the ramifications are bloody—though surprisingly sympathetic—when their hosts at the farmhouse where they are filming begin to hate and eventually envious that youth. West underscores each person’s desire to be noticed by humanising both the murderers and their victims. It’s a movie that celebrates the undervalued and unappreciated, whether they are porn stars, the elderly, or even staff workers on set.
What’s fresh is old
Pearl (Mia Goth) and Howard (Stephen Ure) are metaphorically a physical representation of the idea of reinventing the past. This concept served as the inspiration for a large portion of West’s filmography, including the black humour western In A Valley Of Violence, the found-footage reenactment of the Jonestown massacre in The Sacrament, and the haunted hotel movie The Innkeepers (2011). (2016).
For West, growing older conceals more intriguing truths that contradict popular culture’s idealised depictions of earlier times, the people who lived in them, and the beliefs and ideals that guided their decisions. Pearl feels something when she is around Maxine; it is not just lust but also a sense of anticipation for the limitless opportunities life has to offer. The prequel to X, which Goth co-wrote, gives Pearl’s aspirations more meaning and effectively makes them new again. This point was further emphasised by the fact that the film came out only a few months later, which makes them (and their upcoming third episode) feel even more connected and unified.
Pearl engages more directly with the concept of masks. The movie, which is set in 1918 in the midst of the Spanish flu and the First World War, presents an idealised Americana aesthetic with amiable, hardworking farm people, war heroes, technicolour in the style of Douglas Sirk, and the musical whimsy of The Wizard Of Oz (1939). But as the movie goes on, this perfectly chosen pop culture background starts to turn sour, much like Pearl’s naive manner.
Douglas Sirk has not visited there.
Cruelty, poverty, and pandemic fear strip away America’s idealistic possibilities; as viewers, we become aware of some realities that Sirk’s films would never depict on screen—a pandemic in which masks obscure faces, the hopelessness of women consigned to domesticity, and a frustrating isolation offset only by dreams of sex and success (“becoming a star”). Whereas X exposed the hidden glories of the 1970s, Pearl holds a microscope up to the ugly of the 1910s, reminding audiences that a century revered for its cultural advancement all too frequently accomplished progress via blood, murder, and disease.
As a game of tug-of-war between what viewers anticipate from historical horror films, X and Pearl both satisfies and confounds their desire to see something fresh. These movies will undoubtedly make you think of others, but by deliberately incorporating such allusions and influences, they work to destroy nostalgia rather than to embrace it.
MaxXxine, the most recent movie in West and Goth’s collaboration, will probably take advantage of the chance to defy ’80s traditions and further challenge our collective recollections of the past, especially the portions we’ve chosen to ignore for our own comfort. Slasher franchises have been revamped by Ti West and Mia Goth, who have not only made slashers uncomfortable once more but also made each instalment distinct by searching through the guts of filmmaking and history itself for something that goes much deeper.