Release Date(s)2022 (September 2, 2022)
Studio(s)A24 (Capelight Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: D+
Writer/director Ti West’s X begins with a single shot that’s essentially the reverse of John Ford’s famous closing shot from The Searchers. The camera is inside of a building looking out through an opening that narrows down the full width of the frame, but rather than having someone shut a door to cut off the outside world, the camera pushes through the opening instead, which causes the frame to expand back to its full width. It’s a seemingly simple shot, yet not a trivial one, since it prepares the audience for West’s visual game of shifting aspect ratios throughout the entire film. It also sets up the idea of a movie within a movie, or perhaps to be more precise, a story within a story—the whole opening scene is a framing device that demonstrates the literal framing devices that West will use. Of course, it still doesn’t necessarily ready the audience for some of the disquieting things that are going to happen within those frames, but that’s the essence of West’s measured approach to the horror genre.
Ti West is unquestionably one of the modern masters of slow-burn horror, where the basic situation is set up gradually, carefully ratcheting up the tension until all hell breaks loose by the end. Yet one of his greatest gifts is something for which he doesn’t get enough credit: his technical prowess in bringing period stories to life on screen in an authentic fashion. West doesn’t merely make period pieces; he recreates period filmmaking that’s accurate down to the smallest detail. In a film like The House of the Devil, he didn’t settle for just setting the story during the Eighties. Instead, he made the entire film feel like it had actually been produced during the Eighties—right down to the freeze frame for the opening credits, and the font that he used for the titles. More subtly, he worked with cinematographer Eliot Rockett to create a slightly desaturated color grade that replicated the look of the telecine process used for VHS tapes during that era. Even if those details aren’t absorbed on a conscious level, they still work subconsciously to give not just a period look, but also a period feel.
Since X is set during the Seventies, West and Rockett employed a very different visual strategy to create the feeling of a film made during that particular decade. The story follows a group of filmmakers played by Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Kid Cudi, Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell, as they travel to a remote farm in Texas to shoot an adult film called The Farmer’s Daughters. The elderly owners of the farm, Howard and Pearl, don’t actually know what kind of film that the young people are making. Needless to say, they have some surprises in store for them, but Howard and Pearl might have a few surprises of their own in store for the filmmakers as well. Since West’s story shifts between what happens around the production of The Farmer’s Daughters and the film itself, West and Rockett chose to shift back and forth between the look of matted widescreen 35 mm film and that of open-matte 16 mm film. It’s an effective approach to evoke a time and a place, in this case the Texas of 1979.
Needless to say, Tobe Hooper is a touchstone for West’s tale, though not always in obvious ways. Sending a group of young people in a van to meet their fates in rural Texas is an unmistakable nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, yet the story’s real antecedent is actually Hooper’s follow-up to that film, Eaten Alive (though precisely why is best left for viewers to discover on their own). There’s also a strong Paul Thomas Anderson vibe to the way the director of The Farmer’s Daughter has the ambition to create a real film, not just a porno flick. The disagreements between him and the producer who’s putting up the money comes straight out of Boogie Nights (as does the idea of shifting between 16 mm and 35 mm, for that matter). Yet all of that is arguably a chimera, since at its heart, X is neither a slasher movie nor an exposé of the adult film industry. It’s all just a veneer that helps to create both a setting and a mood. No, the real core of X is a very different genre: body horror, though not in the familiar Cronenbergian fashion. Instead, it’s the horror inherent to the aging process. It’s no accident that the filmmakers in X are making an adult movie, since that provides a visual representation for the heights of youthful sexual potency. Howard and Pearl’s aging bodies stand in sharp contrast to that, and the young people are a painful reminder to the elderly couple of the inevitability of decay—and the fact that what’s gone can never be recaptured. The real villain in X is time itself.
That’s why West’s own games with time are entirely appropriate for X, since he uses his technical expertise to try and recapture lost eras on film. The Seventies setting of X may be the past for us, but it’s the present for the main characters. Yet they have pasts of their own, so West took things to the next level for his prequel Pearl by changing the setting and the style to match an even earlier era. He has similar plans for a sequel that moves things forward a decade after X. It’s an ambitious plan from a resourceful filmmaker, one who provides a visual embodiment of Delmore Schwartz’s view of time:
“What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.”
Eliot Rockett captured X digitally using Sony CineAlta Venice cameras with Vantage MiniHawks lenses for the 35 mm footage, and a vintage 1970s-era Kowa zoom lens for the 16 mm footage. (The distinctive ultra-wide-angle shots were captured using an ARRI Ultra Prime 8r 8 mm lens.) There’s no information available regarding the either the capture resolutions or the resolution at which post-production work was completed, but it was likely a 2K Digital Intermediate that has been upscaled to 4K here and then graded for High Dynamic Range (in Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HDR10+). The majority of the film is framed at approximately 1.90:1, with the 16 mm segments windowboxed within that frame at 1.37:1.
At first glance, it's an unimpressive 4K presentation since the image is consistently soft, but there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. As Rockett explained to Filmmaker magazine, “When I shot (The House of the Devil) for Ti, the intention was to make this period movie where not only was the story set in a different period but the actual artifact of the movie itself felt of that period. That was again the approach that we were taking this time. The entire movie should feel like it was found in a time capsule.” Reading between the lines, their real intention wasn’t necessarily to re-create the look of both 35 mm and 16 mm negatives, both of which can be extremely sharp and detailed, but rather to give the impression of watching 35 mm and 16 mm prints. That’s an important distinction, as it explains why things look the way that they do here. To create that effect, Rockett and West developed two different sets of LUTs (Look Up Tables) to apply to the footage that they shot, with different color renditions and grain structures to mimic the respective formats. Crucially, a slight de-focus was added to each in order to simulate the softness that results from the generational loss due to the printing process. A print is never as sharp as the original camera negative, so the image in this 4K presentation isn’t as sharp as the best that the format has to offer. That’s a conscious choice, not a defect.
The results do indeed resemble watching 35 mm and 16 mm prints in projection, especially when viewed on a large screen via digital projection. No, it’s not as sharp or as detailed as digitally captured cinematography is capable of producing, nor does it match a scan from a quality film negative, either. On the other hand, it does a credible job of giving the impression of real film prints. The simulated grain varies in intensity depending on the source, but it always retains that slightly softened print-like appearance. The color timing also changes depending on the source, with the 16 mm footage having the distinctive yellowish cast of a worn and faded theatrical print. The rest of the colors look far more natural, though they’re still relatively muted for an HDR grade. There’s plenty of color detail, without ever pushing the saturation level too far. The contrast range is similarly restrained, with decent if unexceptional black levels (though once again, that’s how everything was shot). It’s not a dazzling 4K presentation, but it’s an accurate one, and that’s what counts.
Audio is offered in German 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and English Dolby Atmos, with optional German and English subtitles. The Atmos mix offers a subtle but consistent sense of envelopment that’s a noticeable improvement over the already fine 5.1 track on the previous Blu-ray versions. Offscreen effects are placed precisely around the viewer, both environmental and otherwise—during one of the film’s more gruesome scenes, blood splatters around the room in all possible directions, including the overhead channels. There’s even a couple of moments where voices from upstairs rooms can be heard in the overheads. The score from Tyler Bates and Chelsea Wolfe supports the action perfectly, and there’s also some appropriate songs from the likes of Mungo Jerry, Robert Palmer, and Blue Oyster Cult.
The Capelight Pictures 4K Ultra HD release of X is a two-disc set that includes a Region-Free 1080p Blu-ray copy of the film. Both discs are housed in Mediabook packaging that includes a German language interview with West from issue #93 of Deadline das Filmmagazin. There are actually two different designs available, one with two of the character “X” posters on each side (Mia Goth and Brittany Snow), and the other with the crossed legs poster. The latter is also offered as a Steelbook option. The disc-based content is the same all three releases. The following extras are included on both the UHD and the Blu-ray, all of them in standard HD:
- The Farmer's Daughters (4:53)
- Making-Of (11:37)
- Becoming Pearl (1:31)
- Kinotrailer (2:26)
- Gerda Trailer (1:55)
- The Innocents Trailer (2:21)
- The Sadness Trailer (1:12)
- Wormwood: Apocalypse Trailer (1:57)
The Farmer’s Daughters is a compilation of some of the 16 mm footage that’s only glimpsed briefly during X—the “dramatic” moments, rather than the sex scenes. It’s available with either English or German audio, with removable German subtitles. The Making-Of and Becoming Pearl are both in English only, once again with removable German subtitles. The Making-Of features interviews with the cast and crew, but at barely ten minutes long, it just doesn’t offer much detail about the production. It’s mostly thoughts regarding the subject matter of the film. Becoming Pearl is a brief time-lapse of the old age makeup that was done on the actor playing Pearl. The Kinotrailer is the German language trailer for X, while the rest of the trailers can be played individually or as a group (“Alle Abspielen”).
Aside from the trailers, it’s the exact same collection of extras that was included on the Region A Blu-ray release of X. The real selling point to Capelight’s release, aside from the striking packaging, is the 4K video and the Dolby Atmos audio. Given the nature of the cinematography, it’s fair to question whether or not 4K is really necessary in this case, especially when seen from normal viewing distances on a smaller flat panel. Still, the greater breathing room afforded by the UHD format certainly doesn’t hurt, and the Dolby Atmos audio is a definite upgrade. Unless A24 eventually decides to release their own UHD via their A24 shop, like they did with Midsommar, Capelight’s disc will likely be the definitive version of X on home video for some time to come.
- Stephen Bjork