Writer/Director Ti West opens his ‘70s set slasher, X, to a gruesome crime scene, then backtracks to set the stage for the pending massacre. West bides his time, letting audiences get well acquainted with his cast. Once attachments are well in place, the filmmaker violently rips the rug from under viewers with a savage kill that heralds in an atypical slasher villain.
When Bloody Disgusting previously spoke with West ahead of the film’s theatrical release, he revealed that the first pivotal death was meant to shock and get our attention. He stated, “I wanted to make a statement with that. I also wanted to let you know that this character you’d been thinking one thing about is now a whole different element in the movie.”
He’s referring to Pearl (Mia Goth), the reclusive wife of Howard (Stephen Ure), a rural Texas landowner who’d rented their guest house to entrepreneur Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson). But Howard was unaware that Wayne planned to bring an entourage, let alone the guest house was to serve as the base for their amateur porn production. When Howard notices Wayne’s brought five additional bodies with him for his stay, he warns Wayne to keep their presence quiet so his wife doesn’t notice. Of course, Pearl sees them straightaway.
While Wayne, Maxine (also Goth), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), Jackson (Scott Mescudi), Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), and director RJ (Owen Campbell) begin production on “The Farmer’s Daughters,” Pearl reveals herself to audiences to be a voyeur. She watches Maxine skinny dip in the pond from a distance with curiosity. Pearl later beckons Maxine over to her home, where she expresses jealousy over her youth. Then, Pearl’s interest grows into lust when she peers through the windows to watch Maxine film a sex scene with Jackson. Pleading with her husband to fulfill her sexual needs goes rejected when Howard gently laments his old heart can’t handle the excitement.
Pearl refuses to let her desires go unmet, though. RJ, deeply upset by his girlfriend Lorraine’s transition from behind-the-camera crew to on screen porn actress, opts to run away in the middle of the night. He’s stopped by a wandering Pearl, who then uses the opportunity to attempt to seduce him. RJ reacts with repulsion, immediately triggering a shift in Pearl’s seduction tactics.
The seemingly feeble woman opts to find sexual gratification by penetrating RJ with a sharp blade. Sexuality slips into violence as she repeatedly stabs him until his head is severed. Once the act is done and she’s covered in his fluids- his blood- she dances in the van’s headlights in euphoria. Pearl sought sexual fulfillment through actual sex, but she claimed it through violence when rejected. It opens a floodgate within her, heralding in a blood-drenched back half as she ascends into a full-blown slasher villain.
The idea of a killer using a phallic weapon to penetrate their victim isn’t new. Film professor and academic Carol J. Clover analyzed the slasher in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. She cited a frequent pattern of killers propelled by sexual repression or psychosexual fury. Clover observed that these killers targeted youth and sexually free characters across gender lines because of that fury. The killer’s choice of weapon is a means to obtain gratification.
That subtext gets violently dragged to the surface in X; Pearl makes her desires, jealousy, and sexual needs explicit. Where X subverts the norm is with the age and gender of the killer. Pearl looks unassuming by appearance. She’s frail and seemingly mild-mannered, especially compared to her more assertive husband. Hiding within Pearl’s tiny, aged body is a ferocious beast holding in barely contained fury at her loss of youth, at the loss of beauty that made her feel desired.
Pearl completely loses herself to that rage with RJ’s rejection, and she savagely rips into his body with a knife. This grisly turning point heralds the traditional slasher formula, with Howard taking a more active role in the slayings, all in the name of love. While most of the deaths are brutal, none come close to the gory beheading of RJ and the significance of it to X’s unique killer.
Scene Screams is a recurring column that spotlights the scenes in horror that make us scream, whether through fear, laughter, or tears. It examines the most memorable, and often scariest, scenes in horror and what it is about them that makes them get under our skin.