Making B Movies with A Ideas: A Deep Dive into Ti West’s "X" Trilogy


Images courtesy of A24

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 (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 aged 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 the 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 will become old, just like Pearl. She will have to deal with losing her youthful beauty and sliding into obscurity. Maybe Pearl got the last laugh after all. 

West's X was a surprise hit, deftly weaving together a slasher with pornographic elements all while creating a believable '70s era film. In Pearl (2022), West explores the tragic backstory behind Pearl's bloodthirsty appetite for both violence and sex and the parallels between her and Maxine's lives.  

Pearl takes place during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic on the same isolated farm from X. Things aren't going well for Pearl's family: her father has been left disabled from contracting the flu requiring constant care, Pearl's husband has been sent off to the war, and her mother has become a cold shell of herself after becoming the sole caretaker of him and the farmstead. All that is left for Pearl are her fleeting daydreams of becoming a glamorous movie star and the harsh drudgery of her real life.

Like X, this film explores the relationship between ambitions and reality and how the former can be undone by the latter. Pearl is trapped in her situation both figuratively and literally, forced to fulfill her patriarchal womanly duties as both a wife and a daughter and physically forced to stay at home due to the threat of the disease circulating. Her frustrations and low self-esteem combine into a dangerous mixture, creating an explosive cocktail of unexpressed emotions. The narrative does well with painting Pearl as a somewhat sympathetic character, at least in the first half of the film. The second half of the film is quite gruesome, and it uses this gore to reinforce the themes and characterization.

Mia Goth gets to stretch her acting wings far and wide in this film, simultaneously portraying Pearl as a quiet and timid young woman, a raving maniac, and finally, a cold-blooded killer. She effortlessly embodies all three of these forms, switching between them as the situation dictates, imbuing Pearl with a manic energy that is highly compelling to watch, almost like a parody of Judy Garland's roles. Pearl's frustrations are tangible and ultimately devastating to watch as she collapses under the weight of her many personal disappointments.  

The pacing is a bit slower than X, but the payoff to the slow burn is worth the wait. West nails the '20s era aesthetic without overdoing it, and he deftly hides visual allusions to X, like Pearl wearing overalls like Maxine did and transferring the iconic powder blue eyeshadow color to her shirt instead. It provides more context for why Pearl was so enamored with Maxine, as they share external and internal similarities. Both women chase their dreams despite everything around them trying to drag them down.

After filming X and Pearl back-to-back and releasing them the same year, there was a two-year wait for the final installment, MaXXXine (2024). The story picks up directly after the events of X and follows Maxine as she moves to LA and tries to make it big in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Maxine is haunted by elements of her past: her career in pornography and the gruesome events at the farm where her friends were murdered. As Maxine struggles with getting acting jobs, a serial killer known as The Night Stalker is on the loose, murdering and raping people.

Hollywood is a town of duality and hypocrisy, a façade intended to give off an aura of glitz and glamor, but in actuality, it is filled with broken dreams and disappointment. Maxine, in her pursuit to "become a fucking star," started out in adult films, but this makes the talent agencies look down on her. Ironically, those same talent scouts ask Maxine to show them her bare breasts at the end of the audition. Sex sells, but only on their terms. MaXXXine is much more self-aware and meta than the previous two films. During the audition, one of the agents asks Maxine, who has a strong southern twang, "Is that your real accent?" Mia Goth has a British accent in real life, and this is a sly wink and a nod to her stint as Maxine and Pearl.

After tackling the '70s era with X and the 1920s with Pearl, Ti West moves on to the '80s in MaXXXine, with mixed results. West channels Brian De Palma a la Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Body Double (1984) even using his iconic split-screen effects. The problem is that De Palma was doing a pastiche of Alfred Hitchcock, so now it's an homage to an homage, and it feels watered down and empty. 

The killer in the film wears black leather gloves, which emulates Giallo films and Dario Argento, but outside of the references to other iconic horror films, it has no identity or style of its own. Strangely, MaXXXine reinforces its themes about the shallowness of Hollywood with its own surface-level take on '80s exploitation cinema. It is fun to notice references, but the story must say something other than "Look at all the films I have seen!"

Maxine's character arc is intriguing, as she comes off as a bit of a narcissist, and she craves fame for all the wrong reasons.  Her mantra, taught to her by her fundamentalist father, “I will not accept a life I do not deserve,” implies that unless she is a celebrity with adoring fans, she is somehow less of a person. Her only drive in life is to "make it," and the only way to do so is by becoming famous. She doesn't seem interested in filmmaking or cinema as an art form, only in the benefits and attention of being a star. That is why she has no qualms about hurting people she perceives as getting in her way. The film opens up with a quote from Bette Davis, "In this business until you are known as a monster, you're not a star." Maxine doesn't hesitate to embody the monster role; now, she only needs a chance to shine.

In a larger sense, West is making a statement about how creatively bankrupt the movie-making process can be, using a director in the film (played by Elizabeth Debicki) as his mouthpiece. She opines about the inability to make the kind of movies she wants and how she has to tone them down for general audiences and producers. She wants to be ruthless, but her hands are tied. Maxine is her outlet, a way to vicariously live her life unfettered by the status quo. MaXXXine had a much larger budget than the previous two films; perhaps West had to put up with more interference to get it made.

The third act of MaXXXine could be seen from a mile away, and it ties up the trilogy in a sloppy bow. In all three films, it explores the duality of being a woman in the public eye and the way the pendulum swings between being the Madonna and the Whore, with no way to exist in the center. Maxine gets her shot but at the cost of her soul. She has been accepted by the beast, but only temporarily, and once she loses the commodity of her youth, the beast will spit her out forever, and the cycle begins anew.

--Michelle Kisner