Even if you could give two shits about X’s pedantry, and the movie’s interplay between form and content, it’s still possible to sit back and enjoy the sheer artistry — nay, majesty! — of its cinematic construction.
And when it comes to horror, the construction to take note of is that of jump scares.
My reoccurring gripe with the genre has long been the fallback formulas deployed to mess with the audience. Their bread and butter: anticipatory dread leading to a frightful and SHOCKING cacophony of sight and sound. My rub: it’s not “SHOCKING” — and, thus, not FRIGHTENING; you know, the desired RESPONSE — if it’s expected, based on the over-trodden history of the genre.
Well, leave it to Ti West to fuck with this customary arrangement, to inglorious effect.
Case in point:
Midway through the movie, a secondary character — when it comes to horror, that can only mean one thing: they’re fucked — investigates a suspicious disturbance he hears emanating from a derelict, poorly-lit, shadow-drenched barn. Upon further snooping, he realizes the noise seems to be coming from the other side of a decrepit wall. And would you look at that, there just so happen to be two conveniently located holes in its wood, perfectly placed for his eyes!
The camera cuts to a close-up sideview of these tiny openings as his face approaches them. Hellen Keller could see where we’re heading: out of “””””nowhere””””, some sort of apparatus thrusts through and stabs his retinas.
So far, so true to formula; in a conventional horror movie, this “SUDDEN” maiming would constitute the “jump”, signaling to the audience that they can now relax, at least for a few breaths.
But X immediately cuts to another secondary character — NOT AGAIN!!! — who’s just been instructed to check out a creepy, pitch-black basement.
She sloooowly — the movie milks the moment for all its juicy potential — reaches for a light-string dangling from a bulb. Those accustomed to horror tropes are liable to predict that the resulting illumination will uncover another spook lurking in the dark; NOT-SCARY JUMP-SCARE ALERT!
INSTEAD, the movie smash cuts back to the eyeholes, and we’re treated to the deafeningly disgusting audio of the aforementioned apparatus being violently, forcefully, and bloodily ejected from his sockets. If your brain is still on pin-needles with the cellar gal, as mine was, then you probably can’t process this location jump until after you’ve been jump scared by the unforeseen gore of the extraction. Success!
But the sequence ain’t over yet.
We move to a long shot of the body crumpled in a heap on the ground. Gradually, we watch the shadow of his presumed murderer trudging towards the carcass. Given the light being thrown on the giant wall behind him — the scene of the crime! — the shadow gets bigger as the sicko lumbers closer, brandishing what appears to be a pitchfork. Ah, so THAT’s the weapon that removed his peepers.
The precision of this scene’s construction — how it progresses the various narratives, how it builds fear, the structurally-paralleled set-ups, the drip-drip-drip of information revealed — just goes to show (and this is a basic bitch observation, but alas): so much of cinema boils down to knowing where to put the camera, how to frame what’s around it, and the rhythm of the editing from shot to shot.
Oh, and in terms of the movie’s pinky-up substance, there’s a resonance between these horror formulas and X’s thematic focus on the genre’s X-factors, the ones that seduce us into continually and repeatedly paying for more.
Remember, folx: what a movie (and all art!) is about and how it’s told can be intimately related and interrelated — in a running, interconnected, ever-deepening conversation with each other.