Ti West’s X is an excellent film for many reasons: every element is on point, from the screenplay to the acting to the cinematography. The inventive slasher, set in 1979, centers on the conflict between the cast and crew of a porn film, led by Mia Goth’s Maxine, and the elderly couple whose property they’re staying on. Wife Pearl (also played by Goth) becomes jealous of the young, hot movie makers– violently so. West’s use of sound and music is assured; he makes wonderful use of retro songs like Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” and enlisted Tyler Bates– frequent Marilyn Manson collaborator and composer for Dawn of the Dead 2004 and The Devil’s Rejects– and Goth singer/songwriter Chelsea Wolfe to compose the original score.
Watching X, I guessed that Bates was behind the music because it reminded me a bit of his scores for Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween II, particularly his use of ethereal and haunting female vocals. In those films, Bates amplified the main theme and produced two beautifully creepy covers with Nan Vernon; Wolfe’s voice has a somewhat similar quality, especially when she’s vocalizing wordlessly. Such vocals are a timeworn tool in horror scoring– Michael Giacchino’s recent score for the horror-influenced The Batman employed them, too– and an undeniably effective one. But X goes beyond a composer featuring or sampling a vocalist; it’s a true collaboration between two talented musicians.
On the X score, Wolfe acts as the musical voice of Pearl, perfectly capturing her longing and rage. This is especially evident on “My God,” “Pearl’s Lullaby” (one of the most melodic pieces on the soundtrack) and “Headlights.” The latter track accompanies my favorite musical moment in the film, in which the diegetic “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” weaves in and out of the non diegetic score and vocals. The music adeptly underscores the shifting moods and textures of the scene, which begins with brutal violence but slips into a moment of quiet, surprisingly graceful reverie as Pearl performs a sort of ballet over the corpse of her victim.
It’s the first time we hear a substantial piece of Wolfe and Bates’ cover of “Oui Oui Marie,” a 1918 song about a soldier wooing a French girl. The song is well chosen for the movie, reflecting Pearl’s relationship with both sexes and her connection with a long gone but not forgotten past. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see it resurface in the upcoming prequel, Pearl.) It recurs throughout, reprised again and again as in a musical; Wolfe whisper speaks lyrics in “Our Secret” and the film concludes with the full length song.
Reflecting the dichotomy of the film itself, the soundtrack breaks away from the moody synthesis of creepy score and haunting vocals on the tracks accompanying the porn shooting sequences, i.e. the cues “Fucking Finally” and “Pumping Gas.” They have a fun, jaunty vibe befitting those moments, evoking authentic “bom-chick-a-wow-wow” adult film scoring. But even on those tracks, the volatile longing and rage of Pearl is never far from the surface. “Fucking Finally” eventually returns to Wolfe’s eerie voice, her sexy/breathy vocals building into a scream as Pearl imagines herself in Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow)’s place. “Pumping Gas” bleeds into the Wolfe-dominated “Our Secret,” as do many of the songs.
The cues are presented out of film order, normally a pet peeve of mine– but here they seem to have been specifically arranged to work as a continuous experience for the listener. At first I wasn’t sure if X’s score worked apart from the movie, but upon reflection, it’s a fairly absorbing listen. Bates and Wolfe have created a unique musical tapestry befitting such a rich and unique cinematic experience. I look forward to hearing what they do next, whether on Pearl or another production.