How Ti West Recreated X's Retro-Horror Aesthetic

"X" marks Ti West's first horror feature in nearly 10 years, and the articulate genre filmmaker delivers a splashy and reflective take on the slasher genre. Set in 1979, "X" follows a group of filmmakers with artistic and economic aspirations who travel to a rural farmhouse in Texas to create a low-budget porn film, "The Farmer's Daughter." The cast includes Mia Goth (who doubles magnificently as an eerie elderly woman named Pearl), Brittany Snow, Jenna Ortega, and Kid Cudi. Its gritty, retro style harkens back to "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." But "X" is something entirely different. 

While shooting on the farm, the actors' nubile lovemaking ignites Pearl's jealousy and bloodlust. She has been resigned to celibacy for a number of years because her husband, Howard, has heart problems. Over the course of the terrifying night, Pearl pursues the crew with a deadly rage. "X" subverts horror genre expectations by having protagonists (and antagonists) with sexual agency and desire, portraying villains with empathy, and sharing a thoughtful perspective on the sorrows of aging.

"X" was made in New Zealand by the crew of "Avatar," who were on hiatus. The country was the perfect filming location because it had largely eradicated COVID-19 and thus had no need for COVID-19 protocols. "It's obviously not a very social-distanced kind of movie," Ti West joked in The Daily Beast.

He used special lenses to evoke 16mm film

COVID-19 did affect how Ti West approached making "X." In an interview with IndieWire, West explained how he used "special lenses and post-production effects to create the grainy look of 16mm film" to evoke the time period and other films from the era such as "Debbie Does Dallas" or "Deep Throat." But this was not always how he wanted to shoot "X." He told his prepandemic ideas to IndieWire

"The original plan was to shoot on 16mm, but because we made the movie in New Zealand during COVID, it would've been impossible to get dailies within two weeks. We shot on the Sony Venice and used these groovy hawk lenses. I went exhaustively out of my way so that people thought I shot on 16. That's not so much because of nostalgia for the format. Film offers a certain aesthetic that digital is almost there but not the same. Especially when you make a movie like this, that is part of the charm of it."

West used older light fixtures to create the feel of celluloid. He continued: 

"In post, there's a minimal amount of defocus on the whole movie, which takes away some of the sharpness — and then there's a certain amount of moving grain we shot from film to overlay onto it. All of that sounds like a ton of work, and it's kind of invisible when you watch the movie, because it's not grindhouse-y or kitschy. It's there to take the edge off the modernness of the technology."

The director has used film in the past. "The House of the Devil," about a babysitter who becomes part of a Satanic plot, was shot on 16mm film, lending a vintage aesthetic that matches its 1980s setting. Shooting in 35mm laced "The Innkeepers" with a chilling nostalgia that offsets the quirky humor of two inn employees searching for spirits.

In "X," West also uses popular 1970s techniques such as split screens and wipe transitions, the former of which is used in a moving montage set to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." The clips from "The Farmer's Daughter" seem lifted out of the 1970s, using Academy ratio and a grainier style. The celluloid look of "X" is more than just a visual aesthetic, it comments on the craft of filmmaking itself.

An ode to the craft of filmmaking

"X" is a self-reflexive meditation on what it means to create and consume cinema. Specifically, "X" acknowledges the artistry behind grindhouse cinema — which is traditionally considered lowbrow. As Ti West told The Daily Beast, it explores how horror and porn have a "symbiotic relationship of being the outsider genres that you could make without any permission or any access to the things that Hollywood had to offer, and you could go direct to an audience and you could find a lane there."

The director of "The Farmer's Daughter" wants to evoke the avant-garde stylings of Jean Luc-Godard and Federico Fellini, not just make another porn; he wants to elevate what is seen as an inferior, smutty genre by taking from his French New Wave inspirations. In The Daily Beast, West describes the time period as "probably the most revered time for American filmmaking, where mainstream movies were pretty challenging and sort of experimental, and at the same time exploitation movies were very rich and we had places from drive-ins to 42nd Street. It's just a rich cultural time for cinema." 

While making "X," West decided to take advantage of the sets and crew available and shot a prequel, "Pearl," which will explore the antagonist in more depth. "Pearl" will be a spin on Douglas Sirk melodramas and Disney movies with a Technicolor aesthetic. "If 'X' is about the way this auteurist era of independent filmmaking is affecting people, 'Pearl' is sort of about the old Hollywood way that affected people," he told IndieWire. He's also currently working on a sequel, which will explore the rise of home video. It will be exciting to see the story of "X" fleshed out in these upcoming films!