“Give the people what they paid for.”
This line of dialogue from X accurately describes my longstanding criticism of action movies and horror movies: if their audiences paid for blood for blood and by the gallons, then why waste time — generally at the beginning — on scenes without these promised thrills? You can throw all the pinky-up buzzwords that you want at me — plot! character! theme! — but let’s be real: neither genre excels at such terrain. Sure, if executed well, these successful introductions can make the inevitable horror more horrifying, and the inevitable action more enveloping. But, usually, the artistic competency of these bits leaves mucho to be desired (because no one is here for them, talent included). So I find myself sitting through these attempts, wondering when we’ll finally get to the fucking good stuff. You know, what I paid to see.
Well, X replaces this good-stuff waiting with actual good stuff: fucking, and by the gallons.
Granted, horror movies tend to start with sex (not by the gallons), but X sheds the pretense of conventional artistic legitimacy: it’s literally porn. Instead of copulation “merely” for copulation’s sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that), this early-stage porn has the effect of establishing the movie’s running juxtaposition between porn and horror; the story structure literally parallels the two.
As genres, porn and horror have been entangled together for ages in a voodoo dance with the devil (ever heard of torture porn?), and X probes their overlaps; both revel in the glorification, romanticization, objectification, commodification, and commercialization of the human body, intersecting with notions of youth, beauty, gender, physical strength, power, transgression and, of course, sex and violence. The relationship between them — the violence of sex, the sex of violence; procreation and the end of creations — is a natural/unnatural byproduct of treating bodies as vehicles for pain/pleasure.
X’s titular theme is predicated on a concept at the core of both porn and horror, a concept deeply embedded in the main character’s arc: what’s the X-factor that makes you worthy of being the star of the story, the center of our attention? What sets you apart from the rest? What qualities allow you not only to survive, but to thrive? If some art can be about giving people what they paid for…then what’s the X-factor that we the audience pay to see, in porn and in horror? And why?
And what can lacking — or even losing — possession of this X-factor provoke in us?
Well, that question ends up fueling the horror we paid to see in X. The first half — the porn half — suggests an air of the horror to come, all while exploring the ideas that ultimately motivate the horrifiers. The second half’s horror is seeded in the first half — thematically, tonally, and narratively (his heart! the croc! the TV minister!). The porn seeds the horror, and then these very same seeds blossom — wilt? — into the ending’s hell.
Oh, and while all this is going down, X is simultaneously building a multi-movie mythology right before our eyes, and right under our noses.
In other words, X‘s foreplay proves to be as essential as the play we paid for.