From the Promethean grotesqueries of Shelley to the splayed organ splatter-fests of the Grand Guignol, horror has always been a genre primarily preoccupied with the human body. It’s not difficult to ascertain why; the temptation to wrap one’s allegory in the veil of viscera is an offer too resplendent for an artist to ignore. The relative democratization of the horror film – remember, anyone with a few friends, a camera, and a bucket of fake blood can make one – works in tandem with the genre’s malleability to reiterate greater societal truths not inherent to the ennui of someone getting disemboweled. This mode of thinking, in theory, should harken back to the carnival barker theatrics of independent producers the likes of David F. Friedman or Roger Corman – you sell ‘em the steak, and you give ‘em the sizzle, as it were. In the new wave of modestly budgeted genre fare produced by studios whose goals lie in maintaining aesthetic cohesion rather than producing anything meaningful, however, the aims of the horror film began to shift.
Rather than continue using the genre’s obsession with flesh and blood to penetrate the collective id, the age of millennial horror has attempted to shift the genre’s focus from the body to the mind. The shift presents the viewer with horror of a different form: The titillation that accompanies a viewer watching a body that isn’t their own being perverted supplanted by their own subconscious fears being the main driving force of the thrill. A given viewer may never experience their body being mangled and maimed, but most of the audience will, at one point or another, inhale the noxious fumes of grief. This supposed maturation of genre ethos, deemed “elevated horror” by a certain sect of film critics with no working knowledge of the genre’s mechanics, seeks to foreground the subtext of the films that would proliferate the average 42nd Street cinema five decades prior. Why evoke mood through the ecology of filmmaking when one can evoke mood through exposition of character? This obsession with artistic preservation looms so large over the modern horror artist that they begin to forget the fundamental ligament that should act as the foundation of any worthwhile piece of art: entertainment.
With his latest film, X, Ti West co-opts the aesthetic trappings of these post-modern “elevated horror” films to Trojan Horse a true-blue 70s slasher film into mainstream multiplexes. For years, West has existed within the realm of echo cinema, a relatively new phenomenon where a text’s conversation with the aesthetic or thematic trappings of previous filmic works being the attraction in and of itself. This isn’t necessarily a point of derision; West’s greater body of work aping decades of genre iconography and allowing them to function on their own terms is an asset that more artists should strive towards. The film – which follows a group of adult filmmakers who find themselves fighting for their survival while trying to make a porno in rural Texas – acts not as a continuation of West’s echo cinema, but seemingly as a response to the greater movement towards “elevated horror.” Where the A24 logo goes, expectation follows. X is textually aware of this sort of brand recognition, using the character of RJ as an amalgam for West’s perceptions of audience brand knowledge and modern horror filmmaking pedantry. To have pretension about the importance of your art is tantamount to death. This perspective, entertainment for entertainment’s sake, is refreshing, offering a reprieve from the doldrums of modern art-horror with its back-to-basics approach to visceral thrill.
The camera spends as much time lingering in negative space as it does gleefully relishing in synaptic nerves being pulled from eye sockets. As the characters seek liberation through a consensual capturing of their sexual escapades, so, too, does the audience seek liberation in the voyeuristic excesses of a body’s destruction. If West is to be commended for any one thing – and in this context, he is to be commended for many – it is the reestablishment of the body as the horror film’s most valuable asset. One can only hope that this signifies some kind of greater trend, though if upcoming films like Alex Garland’s tiresome Men are to be considered, one can only see West’s efforts as a fool’s errand. As true as this may be, it’s cathartic to see him try.