Back at the beginning of the year, Ti West returned to horror and blessed us with X, a 70’s set slasher that took an overfamilar sub-genre and pumped it with new life – literally considering that the story concerned a gang of misfits hoping to film a porno on a dilapidated farm only to fall foul of the geriatric Pearl. The twisted yet faintly tragic character not only enchanted viewers but it obviously climbed into the skull of West and actress Mia Goth too and refused to leave because we already have a prequel to feast on as the two collaborated on a story concerning Pearl’s predictably screwed up origin story.
But where X was a grainy, harsh, Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style 70’s bloodbath, Pearl washes its 1918 setting in bright, colourful Wizard Of Oz style gloss in order to pick deep into the fracturing psyche of its lead character.
As I mentioned before, it’s 1918 and many years before an elderly Pearl laid waste to the makeshift film crew of a porno movie after there triggered her psycho/sexual impulses, we find the younger version languishing in the same Texan farm. As the influenza pandemic holds the area in its virus-y grip, an isolated Pearl cares for the animals, tends to her paralyzed father and waits for her husband Howard to return from World War I while her stern, German immigrant mother shields herself to the anti-German sentiment caused by the outbreak of the conflict.
However, even this early on in her life, it’s agonisingly obvious that Pearl has something of a tenuous grip on reality already with her isolation and her insatiable desire to leave the farm and become famous combining with her aggressive libido to lead her to act out her fantasies. This means when she isn’t killing the occasional farm animal just to see how it feels, she’ll be sipping from a bottle of morphine while sneaking away to watch one of her beloved matinees or even getting uncomfortably… physical… with a local scarecrow, but as her boring existence seems destined to go on forever, her ability to keep her urges in check starts to erode.
Hope appears on the horizon in the form of a bohemian cinema protectionist who fills her head with dreams of moving to Europe and an upcoming audition that’s being held in order to find dancers for a travelling troupe which Pearl sees as her last chance for freedom from the crushing pressures of her life.
However, as we know from X, Pearl is destined to remain stuck in this life, but not before her tenuous grasp on reality spectacularly frays, spreading death and destruction in her wake that means that Alligator lurking in a nearby lake isn’t going to want for a meal any time soon…
It’s incredibly rare when a sequel or a prequel actually manifests itself organically, born almost entirely from the need to tell a story and solely not from financial gain and this is exactly what Pearl is: a further extension of X which picks up the mental breaking point of that film’s antagonist while giving itself the incredible freedom to tell a completely different story. Yes, Mia Goth once again wows in centre stage and yes, that pitchfork once again gets some usage that the manufacturers would probably balk at, but those expecting another gritty stalk and slash may be a little confused. While Pearl veers away from the slasher template into the territory of more psychological horror insofar that we’re already pre-armed with the knowledge that our twisted heroine is about to commit hideous atrocities – it’s just a matter of when.
However, most interestingly, in order to pry into the widening cracks of Pearl’s facade, Ti West forgoes taking the obvious visual route of invoking imagery born from Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter and instead channels the golden years of Hollywood when the screens were awash with bright blue skies and radiant gold corn fields as Pearl’s mania takes hold. X may have felt more like a Texas Chainsaw movie than 80% of actual Texas Chainsaw movies, but Pearl at times feels more like The Wizard Of Oz – if Dorothy wished her Auntie Em dead and used the Scarecrow to achieve an orgasm.
If I’m being honest (and slightly picky), if someone was to ask me with a pitchfork pressed to my head, I would have to say I still prefer the raw sex and grue of X, but that’s not to say West’s prequel doesn’t bring some top notch tension and a spellbinding central role. A lot of the dread comes from us being fully clued in to what so many people around Pearl haven’t cottoned on to yet and watching them put themselves in ever more hot water results in fantastic moments where you can actually feel your stomach sinking as Pearl’s mood changes – similarly, there is a lot of mileage that’s ground out of the blackly humours fact that Pearl’s mute and paralyzed father knows exactly what is going on and is utterly powerless to do anything about and it’s this twisted relationship that often provides the best moments.
However, the centre point here is undeniably Mia Goth’s leading role who impressively makes Pearl as much an unwilling victim to her madness as much as anyone else and you’ll be hard pushed to think of any “villain” in the last decade as vunerable and deserving of empathy as titular, daydreaming lunatic. In fact, after the climax of the film, Pearl’s final, desperately agonized grin, held over virtually the entirety of the end credits is as potent an example of cinematic insanity as Jack Nicholson leering through a wrecked door in The Shining and invokes equally strong feelings of repulsion and pity.
If there’s any issue regarding Pearl, they’re mostly born from the fact that to get the punchline of the whole movie, you really have to have seen X as a lot of the story is left up in the air to get concluded in the 70’s – I really wanted to see the depth of husband Howard’s devotion after returning from the war but the presence of Pearl’s other half is sadly minimally felt. Also, the deaths lack the visceral punch of the earlier movie (Or would that technically be later? Bloody prequel logic) with West taking a slightly more subtle approach.
However, that doesn’t mean experiencing Pearl’s origins isn’t a genuinely beguiling experience and West smartly weaves in aspects of modern life (the influenza pandemic is eerily similar to our recent COVID misadventures) that makes this jaunt to 1918 feel fiercely relevant.
And there’s yet more to come as West and Goth are due to collaborate a third time with MaXXXine, the 80’s set trilogy capper that’ll no doubt be as different to Pearl as Pearl is to X and yet still be equally as gripping.
With its farm setting and a stunning central performance, this is definitely a case of Pearl before swine.