It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that if you’re making a horror movie and you’re also making a prequel origin story for that movie’s villain before it’s even released, you better be pretty damn sure that you came up with one hell of a compelling villain. Not that there has been any established precedent for this sort of thing – it’d be quite like Paramount ordering up a Pamela Voorhees prequel months before Friday the 13th proved itself to be a box office success – but I suppose there is now. As you may have heard – you may have even seen the post-credits teaser trailer – Ti West is already making a prequel to his slasher movie X, with A24 giving him the green light to head back out there with his crew and film Pearl, a prequel centered on the villain none us had actually even met at the time. Filming on Pearl, in fact, is already complete, with the 1918-set prequel movie listed as “coming soon” by A24… probably even this year.
No, that wasn’t a Grindhouse-style faux trailer you were treated to as a final post-credits treat for supporting X in theaters. That is an actual movie. And Ti West has indicated that the world of X may eventually even expand to include a third movie, making this a trilogy.
It’s a big swing from both West and particularly from A24, who trusted West’s vision for the world of X to such an extent that they didn’t even need to see box office receipts before handing him more money to jump back in time 61 years and make a follow-up. But having seen X for myself, it’s not all that hard to understand their decision-making process. Because with X, West has indeed come up with a compelling villain worthy of more development.
There are many things about X that aren’t exactly surprising. True to West’s track record, with horror films including The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and The Sacrament in the rear-view, X is another horror movie of the “slow burn” variety, simmering with tension and character moments before exploding into a wild onslaught of violence and, quite honestly, bizarre choices that you don’t often find in mainstream genre releases these days. West’s X plays out like a throwback to a time when horror movies were just a little bit crazier, the entire experience feeling like a lost movie from a Grindhouse sequel that we never got. Or, as others have put it, even quite like a lost Tobe Hooper movie from the 1970s – the comparisons to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive are certainly understandable.
Point being, Ti West’s X is many things you probably went into it expecting it to be. The most surprising thing about the movie, however, has nothing to do with the graphic practical violence we’ve come to expect from West, or the slow-burn approach that has become a hallmark of his work. Nor is it surprising that there’s a whole lot of nudity in the movie, both male and female, young and very old; even if some members of my audience didn’t seem to get that memo. Rather, the most surprising thing about Ti West’s X, a truly “fucked up horror picture” that feels more likely to exist in 1972 than 2022, is that there’s a strong emotional core to this tale about a senior citizen couple brutally massacring would-be porn stars in the 1970s. As I was sitting in my local theater waiting for the post-credits teaser to play, someone behind me somewhat perfectly described the movie to a friend she was talking to. “It was about an old woman who just wants to fuck… and then she kills everyone.”
She’s not wrong. That’s pretty much the storyline of X in a nutshell. But Ti West’s vision for that wacky tale of “hagsploitation” is surprisingly tender, with the villains getting more character development than the majority of the young folks who eventually become their victims. And it’s clear, with West rushing out to make a prequel movie entirely centered on the early days of Pearl, that he’s got a whole lot of love in his heart for his latest villains.
The slasher maniacs in X aren’t masked nightmares or dream demons, but rather a seemingly harmless old couple named Pearl and Howard. Pearl is played by Mia Goth under heavy old-age makeup while Howard is played by Stephen Ure with much makeup of his own, and West imbues Pearl in particular with enough of a soft side that you’re probably finding yourself right about now quite interested in seeing Goth delve further into the character. Like Jason Voorhees and Frankenstein’s Monster before her, Pearl is an empathetic newcomer to the horror villain pantheon, even if she fast reveals herself to be a terrifying monster. And that’s because West makes sure, at the very least, that we understand where she’s coming from.
X is a movie that ultimately doesn’t seem to be “about” anything – it is, first and foremost, the “fucked up horror picture” West expresses meta awareness of in the film’s final line – but under that bloody surface it’s actually about quite a few different things. In West’s own words, it’s something of a love letter to the indie filmmaking spirit, and there’s also enough there to justify post-movie conversation about sex positivity and the way society tends to look down upon the porn industry in much the same way it looks down upon the horror movie industry – porn being the ultimate celebration of the human body, horror the ultimate destruction of it. But X is also about something else. It’s a movie about youth.
Having it. Losing it. And in Pearl’s case, desperately… murderously… wanting it back.
There are two stories being told in X that ultimately converge in gory mayhem, the first of which is the tale of a group of young friends heading out to a remote location to make their own porno in the wake of Debbie Does Dallas. This is rather brilliantly juxtaposed with the story of Pearl and Howard, the much older couple who own the land the other group of characters are filming their movie on. It’s established that Howard likely has a pattern of renting the place out to single men who don’t meet the kindest of ends, but for this particular story, it’s precisely that juxtaposition of youth and old age that drives the movie forward. One of the stars of the porno being filmed right next door is Maxine, also played by Mia Goth, and it’s the very existence of Maxine that is ultimately Pearl’s undoing. While Goth’s Maxine is youth and beauty personified, a young, desirable woman on the cusp of stardom, Goth’s Pearl is like a funhouse mirror version of Maxine, aged up by several decades and living a life of lonely, sad solitude that couldn’t be further from Maxine’s Hollywood dreams.
To put it simply, Pearl is who Maxine may very well become.
Even before twenty-something Maxine shows up on the property, Pearl is haunted by everything she has and everything she is, the only traces left of her past life being the photographs that hang on her wall like ghosts trapped in picture frames. We gather that Pearl and Howard were once deeply in love, an entire world of passion, adventure and LIFE ahead of them. Pearl could’ve become anything and she could’ve had anything she wanted. Now, however, Pearl is a prisoner in her own failing, decaying body. Her husband can no longer even make love to her, his heart too weak to handle the stress. They’re a couple that has drifted apart by the very sad nature of the aging process, the love between them dwindling to nothingness by forces out of their control. It’s when Pearl encounters Maxine that something that had been lying dormant within her is woken back up. And if you weren’t feeling for Pearl before, well, West lets Fleetwood Mac do some of the heavy lifting there.
Not long after Pearl has made up herself up to look more like Maxine, her husband rejecting her advances to make love, the other characters in X are gathered together in their makeshift filming studio on the property when Kid Cudi‘s Jackson breaks out a guitar and Brittany Snow‘s Bobby-Lynne starts belting out Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” The impromptu concert is cut together with footage of Pearl wiping off her “Maxine makeup” in the mirror, alone and dejected in her bedroom. The song choice couldn’t possibly be more perfect for the moment.
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘Cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I’m getting older too
It’s one of the most tender moments you’ll ever find in a slasher movie, breaking your heart even while you’re well aware that Pearl is about to eviscerate this group of hopeful youngsters you’ve grown to like. And it’s a moment that’s paid off later in the movie, when Howard finally agrees to take a chance with his weakened heart and make love to his wife one final time. The characters have already been well established as creepy murderous villains at this point in time, to be clear, but it’s another tender moment that West makes sure to give its proper due. You won’t find too many movies that allow their senior citizen characters to make love on screen, horror or otherwise, and it’s a testament to the bold uniqueness of West’s vision that he shows us the intimate act with the same level of detail we watched earlier sex scenes play out. If they weren’t murderous maniacs, it’d be a downright beautiful scene; two longtime lovers finally connecting in a way they haven’t in many, many years. Some may find it humorous, others may find it gross, but there’s a bizarre tenderness to it all the same.
I’m currently reading Jamie Nash’s book Save the Cat! Writes for TV, and he writes on page 49, “All good movies are about characters and truth and emotions.” This statement is an undeniable fact, and Ti West’s X is a good movie indeed because it does care so much about characters, truth and emotions. We all want to be loved. And we can all relate to getting old. These are universal truths and universal emotions, and X smartly touches upon them inside the confines of what very much is, if you don’t want to dive too deep into anything else, a twisted horror movie about twisted people. But it’s because there are those seeds of humanity within the movie that X is smarter and more compelling than the average slasher. And it’s also why, I suspect, fans of X are going to be very eager to support Pearl in due time.
Good heroes are flawed and good villains have qualities we can relate to. With Pearl, Ti West and Mia Goth have brought to the screen a complex and frighteningly relatable new villain. Pearl is the sad horror of aging embodied in the most extreme horror movie sense. We’re not merely afraid of Pearl sneaking up behind us and sticking a pitchfork through our eyeballs.
We’re afraid, on a much deeper level, of what’s awaiting us down the road.