Horror and Hagsploitation
There is a lot to be said for ‘elevated horror’ and how film-school favourites like Ari Astor and Robert Eggers have brought the genre as a whole to new, respectable heights. But sometimes, isn’t it nice to just watch someone get splattered?
A24’s X, the fourth film from indie director Ti West, is a gruesome, squeal-inducing, X-rated slasher that returns horror to its roots and forgets about begging the audience to believe there is something deeper afoot. And, of course, there is plenty of depth to this 1970s-set tale of young pornographers heading to the deep south to make their next movie, but West isn’t ashamed to let decapitations and dicks do the talking. As camera op RJ (Owen Campbell) lets us know, “It is possible to make a good dirty movie.”
Despite its Texas setting, X was filmed in Fordell, in the Whanganui region, the perfect isolated backdrop for a film set on making you feel as trapped as its characters. While its Aotearoa connection may not be clear to international viewers, locals might recognise a few of our acting alumni, with Martin Henderson and Stephen Ure in respective lead roles as Wayne, an imperturbable porn producer, and Howard, the elderly owner of the farmland that Wayne’s crew is secretly filming on. They’re joined by fresh-faced scream queens Mia Goth and Jenna Ortega, along with Brittany Snow and rapper Kid Cudi, to form the filmmaking troupe. Together the budding artistes travel to the aforementioned farm in order to make their sordid picture, with dreams of breaking into the big time as real-life films like Deep Throat had been able to do in the early 70s. Maxine (Goth) believes herself destined to be a star, repeating her mantra over and over, that she will not accept a life she doesn’t deserve. But no sooner than the fun begins, so do the grisly kills, with farm owners Howard and his wife Pearl dead set on punishing the young pornographers for their youthful arrogance.
Once we are introduced to the remorseless octogenarian killers, the film takes a thematic turn. Aside from its background commentary on the American dream, or the question of low-brow vs high-art cinema, X turns its focus to the entrapment of ageing and yearning for long-gone youth. Oh, and old people getting down and dirty of course. For my money, the most important aspect of the film is its examination of age, beauty and elderly sexuality, explored most explicitly in the wizened Pearl, as it pushes the audience to evaluate what truly horrifies them most.
‘Hagsploitation’ is a term seemingly first coined1 in 2014 that generally refers to films in which unstable older women play the antagonistic role – their age and appearance playing on the inherent distaste of the audience for women of a certain age. It is a long-held trope within horror that has had somewhat of a rise in recent years, with The Visit, Hereditary and even Kubrick’s The Shining all deriving scares from the elderly bodies on show. The most commonly cited film in the genre is 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, which relies particularly on the audience’s awareness of Bette Davis’s somewhat departed glamour and beauty. This is a tactic that Ti West employs with subtlety, as (spoiler) Mia Goth not only plays the stunning young Maxine, but also dons full body prosthetics in order to play 80-something Pearl. While the casting might be misconstrued as a simple gimmick, it is core to the message of the film, and though some viewers might not even realise we are watching Goth in two roles, this dual casting sets up what is at stake for both characters. Pearl views Maxine as what she once was, and Maxine views Pearl, terrifyingly, as what she may one day become. Pearl’s inappropriate obsession with Maxine shows her desperation and desire for the young body, the body that was literally once hers.
Along with Pearl’s own age and appearance getting in the way of un-lived dreams, her veteran hubby Howard also provides a road-block to happiness – they can’t have sex anymore, for fear of his heart giving out. The resulting kills, by way of pitchfork, alligator and handgun, could be interpreted either as a replacement for sex that allows Pearl to still feel a thrill once in a while, or as revenge taken on the young crew for not only being able to act on their salacious desires, but for flaunting them. The filmmakers comment to each other several times on their elderly hosts’ likely jealousy, and seem to feel little shame for deceitfully using the farmhouse for their own gain. But such is the film’s ambiguous morality, we’re not rooting against them. Where slashers often present a bevy of unlikeable 20-somethings oiled and ready for the kill, the characters’ deaths in X act as a gut-punch to the audience, rather than an inevitability we await with glee.
But, despite its bevy of gory deaths and bountiful nudity amongst the younger cast, one of the most standout aspects of X is the way the film embraces the bodies of its two oldest characters. When the eventual sexy-time takes place between Howard and Pearl, their elderly bodies are used as any younger actors would be in an intimate scene. It is theoretically nothing more shocking or sexual than anything we’ve seen so far, but the way this act is received entirely differently when not represented with perky breasts, washboard abs and soft hairless skin is what is most horrifying. This time it shows the viewer what is to come.
Hordes of user reviews on the popular film-reviewing app Letterboxd joked about the sexual nature of the elderly couple in the film. The likes of, “old people scare me too”, “old women horror = the creepiest horror” and “nothing scarier than sex-obsessed ugly-ass old people”. It was mildly disappointing and disgusting to read so many comments that degraded these elderly bodies, especially given that most people are acutely aware that ageing is a constant and inescapable process. So why do we think we are different? Why, like Maxine, do we think we are special and – unlike the elderly who have come before us, who were also once young and beautiful – that we might escape the grip of age. In a more self-aware statement, user Karsten states, “at a certain age, having missionary sex with your bag-of-bones husband is considered a horror scene.” And that’s the cruel reality West shines a light on here: eight gruesome deaths and still a sexually active older couple is the most shocking image in the film.
And sure, Howard and Pearl are murderers and may even have had a few non-consenting sex slaves here or there, but West makes an intentional effort to provide dimension and context so as not to demonise our elderly antagonists. X doesn’t intend to present them purely as ‘mad old people’, there is nuance and sensitivity to their motive, which under examination is heartbreaking. Ageing is inescapable, and that is both the true horror of X, and the mirror it holds to the audience. It’s hard not to empathise, despite the horrific acts it results in, with Pearl’s emotional journey as she loses her desirability. And our young protagonists, though innocent of any real crimes and for the most part intelligent and kind, are not so innocent of ageism. But youth is a bizarre thing to be proud of when all of us are headed for the same fragile fate.
X is a bucket-of-blood romp with a soon-to-stop-beating heart of gold and, ironically, for a film embracing the simplicity of your ‘average slasher’, it’s so much more than that. It is confidently on the nose and quietly complex at the same time, asking in a whisper why we are more comfortable watching tanned and perky bodies torn to bits than we are watching elderly expressions of sexual desire. So does X itself live up to RJ’s aspirations and prove it is possible to make a good dirty movie? Fuck yeah, it does!
Excitingly for lovers of X, the production team secretly filmed a prequel during their time in Whanganui, focusing on Pearl's youth and what led her to become the merciless murderess seen in X. With X already available to stream online, it will be joined by its sister story in late September.
Header image: A24 / Christopher Moss
This essay is featured as part of Issue 07: Aroha, guest-edited by Natasha Matila-Smith. Click here to read other published essays in the issue!