For decades, slasher films have been believed to be trashy gore films that will do anything for a cheap sex scene in order to show a naked woman. They were quick to gain entertainment value by showing violence against women and the bottom of the barrel when it came to elevated horror. However, as any respectable horror fan knows, the subgenre has come a long way in its ability to create empowering female storylines while keeping those fun and bloody elements of traditional slasher films.
In March of 2022, Ti West released a film titled “X” starring Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi and more which follows a group of young adults in the early 1970s that set out to rural Texas to make an X rated film. Their hosts, however, are an elderly couple who are at first unaware of their scandalous intentions. The movie takes a bloody turn when the couple starts to kill off members one by one and the group finds themselves in a real life horror movie. The movie takes inspiration from other classic slasher films, specifically “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and has all of the elements for a raunchy horror film. However, once you take a closer look into the characters, the film makes clear commentary about the stereotype that adult and exploitation films held back in the 1970’s and the role the entertainment industry played in women’s fear of aging.
Exploitation films are a broad genre with a wide range of angles to take, but the central idea is exploiting characters either physically, emotionally, or both which leaves an inevitable connection to slasher films. The original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) is a perfect example of an early exploitation film that was seen as a low-quality, or “B” movie because of its intense gore and character depiction. It also became a part of a chain of slashers, such as “Halloween” (1978) and “Friday the 13th” (1980), that would later usher the infamous horror cliches and stereotypes of the virgin final girl, the throwaway kill characters, etc. to exploit both the sexuality and the bodies of the characters. Jason Zinoman in an article with The New York Times stated “The line between horror and porn was blurry in the 1970’s.” He compares the historical framework to “X” stating,
“At a time when the reputation of scary movies was much lower, pornography was being taken seriously. This is the cultural backdrop of ‘X,’ but also in part its subject, and the film keeps searching for the intersection between sex and violence.”
Instead of shying away from it, Ti West embraced this element of the genre in his film by taking direct inspiration from “Chainsaw,” but exploiting the characters in an interesting way. Since they are set on making a “good dirty movie,” most of the characters are very comfortable in their sexuality and have a different sense of control than other sexualized characters in horror movies. Jen Yamato in an article for the Los Angeles Times that “X” offers a rebuttal in its spectrum of characters who have agency over their sexual wants and general desires.” This is a big step for female sexuality depicted in horror movies because traditionally they do not embrace their sexuality, and if they do they are killed off because of it. West also gives each character their own charm so that when their screen time comes to a gruesome end, the audience feels a sense of loss. Lorraine, played by Jenna Ortega, is portrayed as a conservative Christian who is only there to support her boyfriend’s filmmaking aspirations and eventually grows curious of the empowerment the film seems to give Maxine and Bobby-Lynne. She becomes the antithesis of every shy virginal female character and shocks the audience with her demise towards the end of the film.
The character Pearl, played by Mia Goth, is one of the biggest parts of the social commentary and even got her own film titled “Pearl” that released September of 2022. In “X” she plays a seemingly sweet elderly woman who longs to have her beauty and youthful glow back. She takes an initial liking to young Maxine, also played by Goth, who seems to remind her of her younger self, but things take a turn for the worst when Pearl is reminded of everything she no longer has: youth, beauty, sex appeal, etc. This causes her to want revenge on not only Maxine, but the entire young group that underestimates her.
Pearl is a personification of the fear of aging for women and the belief that once you start to look “too old” you lose a certain expectation of beauty and power. This is a very prevalent belief still in 2023 through the excessive use of filters, editing and the gush of plastic surgeries women are paying for in order to look like every Instagram model. This ideal is pushed and embraced by society and can make women, especially older women, vengeful at the wrong target. Rather than being frustrated with the companies that profit off of this insecurity and the patriarchal society that idolizes younger women, they take their anger out on other women just for simply embracing their youth. This exploits a fear that everyone has had or will have at some point in their lives.
Both “Chainsaw” and “X” utilize the exploitation genre in order to both disturb and entertain their audience. Since they were made in different time periods of horror, the message behind the exploitation is vastly different. West is able to combine sex positivity, female empowerment and the portrayal of aging all wrapped up into the style of a classic slasher. Zinoman describes the contrast between the movies best by saying,
“‘Chain Saw” is a disreputable exploitation flick made with such artistry that it transforms into high art. “X” arrives in a different context, an era of so-called elevated horror and the kind of respectability that should make any gore-hound nervous.”
Haley Master is a third-year English major with a minor in Journalism. HM948534@wcupa.edu