Ti West is an idiosyncratic figure in film. Despite having indie horror darlings such as The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers under his belt, in 2016 he made a move away from horror with his Western/black comedy In A Valley of Violence. Then, he disappeared from the limelight. For years, save for a few TV directing gigs here and there, West remained silent, before exploding back onto the scene with X this March. Upon release, West’s big return to horror (and filmmaking in general) left a massive impression. Gritty, sexy, playful, deceptively dense, the only thing more surprising than a shot in the arm to horror like X was West’s own announcement following the film’s premiere at SXSW: a prequel, Pearl had already been completed, and was to release in September.
Pearl went on to receive nearly the same level of acclaim, leading to the surprise announcement of the finale to modern horror’s most unlikely trilogy, MaXXXine. On the surface, though, there’s not much to connect the first two films of Ti West’s saga, other than Mia Goth’s performance as villain/protagonist (?) Pearl across both films. They’re separated by an over 60 year gap – Pearl in 1918, X in 1979 – and both have completely different aesthetics and tones. What does the technicolor semi-camp daytime fright of Pearl have to do with the rough-around-the-edges hillbilly horror of X? Well, other than Pearl and the setting, the two “X Factor” films are stealthily telling the tale of the evolution of filmmaking through the lens of one woman’s descent into depraved violence, one that could continue in intriguing ways in the trilogy’s finale.
Guts & Glory
At the onset of X, a crew of young people with a dream head for the Texas countryside. Their dream: make the best damn pornographic movie ever. Spearheaded by producer Wayne (Martin Henderson) and director RJ (Owen Campbell), with some help from RJ’s sheltered girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega) and featuring the talents of seasoned skin flick actors Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi) and Bobby Lynne (Brittany Snow), their production has all the makings of an independent passion project. Just, yknow, with people having sex on camera. This independent spirit extends past the naive auteurism of RJ into the film’s central star, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), a singular beauty who, according to Wayne, has “The X Factor”. They intend to secretly make their adult film on the ranch of curmudgeonly Howard (Stephen Ure). Little do they know, they’re under the watchful eye of his wife Pearl (Goth once again, in heavy age make-up).
The crew’s production reeks of independent spirit. More than that, they have an uninhibited authenticity about that reminiscent of the changing tides of Hollywood. X pays tribute to the shabby veracity of the aesthetics of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as much as it nods to that film’s production and legacy, wherein filmmaker Tobe Hooper and his crew threw caution to the wind to make something much gnarlier, unpolished, and more effective than the cheesy horrors of the time.
The makers of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were unafraid of conforming to the Hollywood standard of filmmaking at the time, and so are the makers of the in-film porno “Farmer’s Daughter”. They’re not born into the glamor of Tinseltown, nor are they climbing the ladder of fame through greasing palms, “playing the Hollywood game” so to speak. This draws at first the intrigue of Pearl, confined in her lonely farmhouse, who not only experiences lust by seeing the making of the movie, but intense envy of the kind of lives they live.
Upon her rejection by RJ, who she attempts to seduce, Pearl starts a murderous rampage that only ends at the hands of Maxine. Much has already been said about how the young see the elderly as grotesque or unworthy of love in X. However, there’s something else to be mined out of examining Pearl’s inherent jealousy of a life perhaps she never got to live. She’s repressed as she witnesses these young people living their lives with reckless abandon and rapture. The one life that looks exactly like hers in Maxine, especially, sparks a deep rage that leads to bloodshed. Perhaps this also works as an apt metaphor for Hollywood. In the 1970s, the voices that usually would have to “climb the ladder” so to speak in American cinema were now able to get their voices out there by simply doing it themselves.
Exposing that X Factor
Pearl sheds more light on what bred this deep resentment in the title character. First off, though, it’s worth noting the lush visuals that recall something like The Wizard of Oz or other films of Hollywood’s golden age. It’s fitting, as Pearl has aspirations of being a Hollywood starlet. Due to her abusive mother and the need to take care of her disabled father, however, Dorothy is unable to ever see what’s over the rainbow. She’s a victim of circumstance, and during her one big shot at an audition, she blows it – not being the right kind of girl they’re looking for.
After all the hard work she’s put in her life, it’s here at this audition that the world rejects Pearl wholeheartedly, as the Hollywood system rejected girls like her at that point in time. Ti West and Mia Goth, who co-wrote the script together, could’ve simply made a point about the Golden Age of Hollywood leaving behind people who didn’t entirely fit the image of the “All American Girl”. The chipper, blonde haired, blue-eyed figure for the consumption of the masses expected to look pretty and smile was in demand, while the others fought for scraps.
Here’s the thing: Pearl’s authentic self may not be worth putting on display. Throughout the film, she tortures animals, privately muses over killing her parents, and cheats on her husband with a projectionist (David Corenswet). The second her parents and the projectionist catch wind of her… quirks, she murders them. Pearl refuses to be admonished for who she is. Yet, where does who she is come from? In a startling monologue towards the end of Pearl, she reveals that all she wanted is to be loved. Where did this dream come from – being cooped up? Being away from her war-deployed husband? Or the escapism she found from the silent films of the time, giving her an expectation of what she deserved? Whatever it is has bred a powerful delusion of grandeur, the grand romance of a Hollywood picture where she is the star, adored by all for being herself.
Maxine Takes Hollywood
Which brings us to the prospect of MaXXXine. In the final moments of X, it’s revealed that Maxine is the escaped member of a Christian fundamentalist organization. As she escapes the farm, she utters to herself “I’m a fucking star”, and speeds off. If the teaser to MaXXXine is anything to go by, we’re finally heading to Hollywood. Maxine is on the rise by being her authentic self, so what challenge will she face? It’s hard to tell now. Her past could come back to bite her, with her old religion seeking to punish her for her “sins”. Though this could go in a completely different direction. Maxine’s entry into Hollywood can be a way for Ti West to examine those in the power and the real sins they commit. It’s a golden opportunity to see earnest authenticity win out, for the Maxines of the world to get their revenge.
Wherever the saga goes, Ti West and Mia Goth have at least made two thirds of a horror trilogy for the ages. Through its villainous central character, the X saga explores the changing tides of Hollywood, the role authenticity therein, and a path forward. Both West and Goth have made pictures of varying size, scope, and genre, but were most known for their start in horror, specifically West’s early picture The House of the Devil and Goth’s first high-profile role in A Cure for Wellness. By culling from their experiences, they’ve made a grand statement about Hollywood and the evolution of filmmaking. When the trailer for X first released, many thought it would be a silly pastiche of the hillbilly horror genre. How wrong we were.