A Foxy Car Wreck: The Symbiotic Relationship of Death and Sex in Ti West’s X


Spoilers for the entire film are in this article, only read after seeing the film!

For the past decade or so, sex seems to be missing from the majority of Hollywood films. The proliferation of sexless superhero blockbusters and “for all audiences” spectacles have dominated the theaters. Of course, there is still a thriving underground indie scene that flaunts conventions, and foreign films seem to have less aversion to showing sexual material, but by and large, sensuality has slowly but surely been excised from the mainstream landscape. This wasn’t always the case, pornography films enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the ‘70s before Reagan-era purity stomped it down. While porn hasn’t disappeared, it has been relegated to websites and subscriptions, and no longer is considered a viable art form, worthy of showing in theaters. Ti West has decided to take this head on with his newest film X (2022), a work that unabashedly combines fairly explicit sex scenes with an ultra gory slasher, and exploring the relationship between sex and death. 

The narrative follows a young group of performers who rent a house in a rural area of Texas to film a porn. Mia Goth plays Maxine Minx, a young starlet who is hungry for fame and fortune, and is hoping this film is her big break. The era is the late ‘70s, and initially the set up and aesthetic feels like an homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) with its desolate dilapidated house and dusty sepia toned environment. When the cast and crew arrives to the location they meet Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth in old makeup) an elderly couple who seem to both be suffering from different levels of dementia. Howard especially, is antagonistic towards the crew, but after he is offered more money he relents and lets them stay in the house. His wife Pearl seems to keep to herself in the adjacent property. 

Most of the first half of the film is concerned with the filming of the porno, but as it progresses it becomes apparent that something is very wrong with the old couple next door. Ti West uses creative editing to go between the sex scenes that the crew are shooting and a similar situation going on simultaneously somewhere off the set, illustrating that depending on how you shoot something it can been seen as sexy or scary. 

The cameraman, RJ Nichols (Owen Campbell), has aspirations to be an arthouse director, stating that “You can make a good porno” and espousing his love for French New Wave films. In this way X is a meta commentary on how horror and porn are considered low art, incapable of transcending itself—West himself uses some avant-garde editing in the film as well to prove that point. At various periods of film history horror and porn shared the same ire of elitists who criticized them as trash only made for titillation and gratification. Sex and violence were conflated, dumped into the same category to be waved aside as garbage. 

Simmering underneath the examination of low art is a plot thread that addresses fear of getting older and how aging is connected to relevance in our society. After wrapping for the day, the young crew relaxes over some drinks, and the director’s girlfriend asks one of the starlets why she picked sex work. She bluntly answers “Eventually you get too old to fuck, so you have to enjoy it while you can.” Earlier in the film Maxine has a strange interaction with Pearl, the frail wife who is confined to the main house. Pearl offers Maxine some lemonade, and later laments to Pearl about her lost youth. It seems that Pearl is unable to be sexually active with her husband because of his weak heart and she has a lot of pent up frustration as a result. It is interesting that Pearl is also played by Mia Goth, as if she is seeing her own future. Getting old can be seen as a sort of body horror, as your physical body and mind gradually deteriorate. Perhaps this can be interpreted  as ageist or insensitive, but at the end of the day this is an exploitation film meant to shock and deal with taboo subjects. 

Once the film switches over to a slasher it becomes a bit more conventional, but the fact that it’s Pearl who does the majority of the murdering makes it intriguing. Pearl is so sexually frustrated that she uses brutal violence as a replacement for sexual gratification, her knife becoming a phallic stand-in as she repeatedly stabs her victims. She is orgasmic while murdering, lit up with a bright red saturated light, a reference to the red light district and Italian horror, and it becomes clear by the end of the film that it’s not her first time. She is “too old to fuck” but she definitely isn’t too old to kill. Howard helps with some of the killin’ offsetting his sexual impotence by helping Pearl “get off” through bloody homicide. This subversion of the normal slasher archetype gives the film a dark humor that is absent from a lot of modern horror—it’s simultaneously tragic and hilarious. Interestingly, most of the film crew that gets killed are in various stages of undress, some totally nude, further emphasizing the visceral connection between horror and porn. 

Maxine is the “final girl” and she eventually escapes Pearl and Howard’s clutches, but as she drives away (snorting coke all the way) it turns out that she only postponed her fate. Time and aging are inevitable, and she too, will become old, just like Pearl. She will have to deal with the loss of her youthful beauty, and her slide into obscurity. Maybe Pearl got the last laugh after all. 

—Michelle Kisner