(Spoilers for X follow.)
If anybody can teach an old hag new tricks, it’s Ti West. Since crashing onto the independent scary movie scene in the mid-2000s – an era that saw studio-piloted remakes scrambling to summon the spirit of days gone by – with his rough-hewn zombie-bat trashterpiece, The Roost, West has emerged as one of the genre’s most treasured technicians: a wizardly auteur whose specialized strain of alchemy enables him to pick apart the seams of timeworn tropes and restitch them, with exquisite sleight of hand and nary a shred of self-referential snark, into contemporary horror tapestries adorned with vintage decoration and dense layers of dread.
Take his latest: the A24-produced X, one of the truest evocations of 1970s drive-in grime since Rob Zombie took his Devil’s Rejects for a spin across the Lone Star State. At face value a blood-spattered, sweat-sodden love poem to Tobe Hooper, S.F. Brownrigg and Bambi Woods, it doles out a relentlessly effective helping of southern-fried slasher pandemonium, putting West right at the very pinnacle of his retro-revisionist powers. Ponder, though, if you will, the possibility that X’s pedigree can be traced back way before the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and you may find yourself appreciating it from an altogether more fascinating perspective.
“Everything written for women seems to fall into just three categories: ingénues, mothers, or gorgons…” Scathing insight there from the almighty Joan Crawford, erstwhile empress of MGM, who in the autumn stages of her career found herself catapulted into the grotesque landscape of “psycho-biddy” cinema: a disreputable subgenre brought forth by the battle to stay relevant in a brutally sexist workplace, where – for the female of the species – growing old just wasn’t an option. Boris Karloff had Frankenstein’s monster. Laurence Olivier: Shakespeare. Jimmy Stewart, hell, he had Hitchcock. What did their equally distinguished colleagues have? Spinsters, servants, and discontented shrews.
Fast-forward to the altogether more liberal terrain of the 1950s: slowly but surely, the tables were starting to turn. From the formidable Gloria Swanson as crackpot silent movie star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, to a pasty-faced Bette Davis marching maniacally to the beat of her own drum as the eponymous fiend of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the arrival of so-called “hagsploitation” brought with it a genre-twisting fusion of high camp and heinous cruelty that, whilst frequently dismissed by critics as humiliating for those females at the fore, was operating – with a near-subliminal lick of intellect – as sly commentary on the pressures endured by women ‘of a certain age’ and the poisonous infrastructure of a patriarchal society.
God bless those suffragettes. Seriously. If it weren’t for the unstoppable tenacity of warriors such as Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Stone, Ida B. Wells and more, each of them valiantly paving the way for the advent of equal voting in 1920, then who knows if Mses. Davis and Crawford – decades later, driven by issues so imperative at the time: sexuality, domesticity, reproductive rights, workplace discrimination – would have been able to fling open the doors for maturing Hollywood headliners quite so victoriously as they did. Their one joint venture (1962’s Baby Jane, generally considered to be the first bona fide hag horror picture) aside, it was their individual appearances in eccentric vehicles like Dead Ringer, Strait-Jacket, The Nanny and Berserk that bestowed the sworn adversaries some of the meatiest roles of their careers, spurring them to recalibrate their craft in delicious new ways and, consequently, generate jobs for the peers that had likewise been labeled as well past their use-bys. Sure, these gals were a little greyer, but they weren’t going down without a fight: just ask Geraldine Page (in the magnificent ’69 potboiler What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?), who, entrenched in a quarrel with co-star Ruth Gordon over the requisite traits of a murderess, opines with blood-curdling conviction: “It takes extraordinary courage… born of inner fortitude.”
It would be foolish to deny, of course, that there was still an egregious level of chauvinism at play during this period, with men being the chief creatives – writing, directing, producing – behind tales about women losing governance of their mental faculties (one can almost visualize the kind of cringe-worthy conversation taking place in writers’ rooms back then: “Of course she’s unhinged! She’s a woman, ain’t she!?”). Often, though, the narratives being peddled at least had the decency to examine how their antiheroines had gotten to this state, whether it be abuse at the hands of a spouse, an intolerable bereavement, or simply just society turning its back on them when they could no longer be pigeonholed approvingly. Masterminds like Curtis Harrington and Pete Walker, particularly, were careful to address such plights in their respective bodies of work, gifting playfully peculiar parts to seasoned pros such as Shelley Winters and Sheila Keith, in movies that were kitschy and nefarious, but also poignant and multi-faceted.
The prosperous rise of the slasher picture during the 1980s brought with it a legion of projects (Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, Curtains, Mountaintop Motel Massacre and Blood Rage among them) that were as much concerned with the complexities of the female psyche as they were with exaggerated body counts. Alas, the macabre, balls-to-the-wall exuberance of true hagsploitation was in short supply over subsequent years (jet-black comedies à la She-Devil, Death Becomes Her and Serial Mom came closest), with audiences demanding a more nuanced and naturalistic incarnation of the matured lady. All hail television trailblazer Ryan Murphy, then, whose recent American Horror Stories have allowed menopausal monstresses to retrieve their rightful jurisdiction in popular culture, fashioning enormous anthological melting pots of vaudeville frights and ferocious gender politics, as well as giving second-wind careers to troopers like Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, and Angela Bassett.
Snatching its inspo from the shadiest recesses of art and exploitation, it is the relationship between beauty, aging and self-worth that creeps most conspicuously through the architecture of X. Initially the story of five horny youngsters banding together to shoot a modest little porno in the arse end of nowhere, the gears begin to shift with the introduction of an elderly farmer and his wife, owners of the land upon which the coitus will soon commence. It is the bald, sunken-eyed Howard – sporting almost the same breed of menacing grandeur as Count Orlok in Nosferatu – who makes the most unpalatable first impression: withered, irritably tempered, a shotgun never too far from his trembling grasp. But what of his better half, Pearl, a reclusive old dear who, by the look of her, wouldn’t even harm a fly? Staggering and wheezing her way through the early portions of the film like a skeletonized Norma Bates brought to painful, debilitating life, she’s a ghoulish creation indeed. With every tight, labored breath, we hear the rattle in her ribcage. As she exhaustedly runs a wire brush across her tousled hair, we feel every coarse, dehydrated strand. Later, when her husband rejects her sexual advances (for the umpteenth time, one presumes), our heart breaks right alongside hers: “Tell me I’m special,” she begs of him. True to form, it’s a man calling the shots. Howard doesn’t want to make love – his heart “won’t take it,” he asserts.
It is here that West tugs most violently at our heartstrings, compelling us to peak way past Pearl’s fragile exterior to the zealous, yearning soul trapped inside. She’s a woman with certain needs; a sexual leviathan let down only by her macerated frame. When she breaks into a delicate, impromptu dance in the searing glare of a truck’s headlights (after wholly reclaiming the “slasher’s knife-as-sexual-penetration” metaphor), one can’t help but feel crushingly sorry for this tragic figure. A balletic eulogy to vanished innocence, simmering desire, and the torment of rejection, it’s a moment that makes for uncomfortable viewing: not because of the callous atrocity that has just occurred, but because it feels wrong to be party to this excruciatingly intimate display – as though stumbling upon your grandmother imaginary-waltzing with a long-lost love she’s never spoken about and never will.
Juxtaposed against all of this, we have the gorgeous core sextet, as dewy-skinned and impeccably curved as you’d expect. Their collective ambition: to change the face of the film industry, one skin flick at a time. Dialogue about pornography being degrading to the women who appear in it – a notion that hasn’t much evolved since the pic’s setting of ’79 – draws a parallel with the critics who so gleefully scorned those superstars of yesteryear for taking roles that were perceived as unflattering (when, in fact, they were simply reclaiming ownership of their identities); while a speech from one of the ingénue porn players ab0ut doing things “on our own terms” provides empowering food for thought in a feature that, whichever way you slice it, is dripping with feminist philosophy. Similarly perceptive is a wistful tip of the cap to the bygone B-maestros whose work so often trod the tightrope between second-rate and sublime, with the director of the pivotal blue movie claiming that he wants to give his opus “a touch of the avant-garde, like they doin’ in France!”
It is testament to West’s intuitive sense of mischief that, when all is said and done, X is just a boisterous ol’ barn dance of a good time, its participants effusively channeling Davis and Crawford – and all the other titans who once scaled those hag-tastic heights – by being one hundred percent in on the joke. “Whaddya think’s on here?” wonders a policeman after discovering a 16mm camera nestled betwixt the nauseating carnage of the previous night’s catastrophes. “I’d say,” replies his boss, “one goddamn fucked-up horror picture.”