‘Pearl’: Mia Goth Rages in Ti West’s Bloody ‘X’ Prequel
That was quick. Scarcely six months since the premiere of A24’s “X” and we are getting the prequel, “Pearl.” This feat by director Ti West, which is a rarity in the horror genre, of releasing a movie and its prequel within the span of barely six months is intriguing enough. What makes it more impressive is that both films are quite good. “X” was an arthouse grindhouse entertainment, gory but also artful. It winked at classic slasher movies while adding its own twists and some depth. There was also a rather endearing angle to how it used a ‘70s porn crew to personify the joys and perils of indie filmmaking. But the show stealer was Mia Goth doing double duty as Maxine, an aspiring porn star and Pearl, the elderly killer consumed by unfulfilled desire in the farm the porn crew rents for its shoot. Here the aesthetic is also a big attention grabber, with West unabashedly referencing Hollywood golden age technicolor while going bonkers.
“Pearl” goes back in time 60 years before the events of “X.” It’s 1918 and the Spanish Flu is making everyone wear masks in public and avoid germs. On a rural American family farm, young Pearl (Goth) lives with her domineering German immigrant mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and incapacitated, wheel chair-bound father (Matthew Sutherland). Pearl’s husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), is off in Europe fighting in World War I. Feeling boredom and a desire to escape, Pearl sneaks out to the local theater to watch films, especially the ones featuring the kind of stage dancers she wishes she could be. The projectionist (David Corenswet) is handsome and darkly charming. Pearl starts feeling an attraction. Her repressed feelings start to boil over and she figures the only way to break free might be by having to spill some blood, even if it means butchering her nightmarish parent.
West comprehends how good horror isn’t just shallow scares, even when the violence has the spirit of B-movie mayhem. If you haven’t seen “X” it won’t matter, as “Pearl” works well on its own,with a few subtle nods here and there. The first film was influenced by movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” This one opens and closes with the tone of a ‘40s or ‘50s melodrama. The cinematography by Eliot Rockett evokes the rich colors of a Douglas Sirk movie with wide shots that recall cinemascope. West makes it his own by then subverting the genre as if this were a tag team effort by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wes Craven. The score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams decorates everything with sweeping strings, and then Pearl kills a swan and feeds it to the crocodile living in that creepy lake from the first movie (which also featured a threatening gator). A lush sunset might cut to the decaying roasted pig a nice neighbor tried to give Ruth, who proudly leaves it out for the maggots to have.
There are many effective shocks in “Pearl,” with lots of spurting blood. Yet this movie is less gory than “X.” West and Goth both collaborated on the screenplay and they have paid more attention to constructing a tragic character driven crazy by repression. Horror has always been unique in how it uses gruesome scares to express the kind of moods we’d rather not put into words. In “X,” the elderly Pearl is sexually starved and this origin story goes to the root of her frustrations. Never does the material get too crass or raunchy. West’s approach isn’t about sex, but about how an ultra-conservative environment saps Pearl of agency and even privacy. She can’t take a bath without Ruth keeping a close eye. When she wants to audition for a dance contest that could take her away from this small town life, Ruth instantly blocks her dreams. Pearl’s job is to wait for Henry and help take care of her father. This is not to say Pearl is some brilliant talent kept locked away. Her sense of the wider world is hollow and she giddily falls for the projectionist’s charms. Pearl doesn’t know any better because her life has been kept inside a conservative bubble. In “X” a TV in Pearl’s house constantly plays a preacher issuing condemning sermons on TV. Whether through her mother or the culture, Pearl was always being damned.
Once her rages begin to erupt, Pearl becomes quite the terror. For Mia Goth this is a career-best performance. She gives it all with a role that is both naïve and utterly insane. Goth can easily join the ranks of the great horror movie freak outs like “Carrie” or “Misery.” There are hints of dark comedy when the projectionist wants to get the hell out of this weird farm and Pearl starts badgering him with white hot rage. We get plenty of bloody gore with rakes going through faces, limbs severed and people set on fire and thrown into the basement. But then the film will cool down for a stunning shot of Pearl opening up to perfect and blonde neighbor, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), confessing some of her deepest secrets and insecurities. Such a moment goes beyond what the genre usually requires. Goth is giving a truly striking performance in a movie that would otherwise be a great drive-in popcorn fright fest. A roasted pig crawling with maggots is surely unnerving, but it’s eerier when the projectionist introduces Pearl to early porn films, which at the time were illegal. It’s a subtle look ahead at the themes in “X,” but also Pearl getting a taste of a debauched existence beyond her, which she can’t even reach because of her fate.
“Pearl” can become a wild entertainment when severed heads are tossed at the crocodile in the lake, or during those great shots of Pearl making her way down a road with an ax, bent on crimson satisfaction. It’s also thunderous, disturbing melodrama and a true homage to a bygone cinematic era. Is it superior to “X” as a movie? That is up to your taste. The first movie was inspired by one particular style of filmmaking and this one by another. It’s certainly a worthy prequel. West has already announced the third film in his trilogy, set in the 1980s and returning to the theme of Maxine seeking fame. Going by this movie, it will also have its own stand-alone style and tone. It’s a smart move. “Pearl” can be enjoyed purely for its look and ax-wielding spirit. When Pearl decides to dance it’s a moment both sad and slapstick funny. We feel for her because her dreams might be an illusion, as well as her desires, like the technicolor textures of the film. Unable to experience the wider world, she begins to turn into a monster we also come to pity. Few horror movies these days really make us think more about the character than the bloodbath. “Pearl” sheds plenty of the latter, but it is Pearl’s twisted, strained smile that stays with us. We already know she’s never getting out.
“Pearl” releases Sept. 16 in theaters nationwide.