Earlier this year, director Ti West and A24 gifted us with the wonderfully subversive X, a stylish, thoughtful send-up of 70s slasher and grindhouse sensibilities. It was a clever, brutal film, dripping with subtext and artistry, yet still managed to deliver on the requisite kills and thrills in a way that even the most disinterested of horror audiences could appreciate without feeling bogged down by allegory. And those of use who stuck around after the credits – no doubt having been trained by Marvel movies so effectively that Pavlov himself would be jealous – were treated with a special surprise: The trailer for Pearl, a prequel to X that had been secretly shot alongside the previous film. Set decades prior, the film would tell the origin story of X‘s psychotic geriatric antagonist, giving us a glimpse into just what made her veer down this dark path, as well as why she felt so connected to Mia Goth’s tenacious final girl, pornstar Maxine.
And having just seen Pearl, I’m happy to report that it’s just as slick and stylized as its 70s-themed predecessor, if not more so, and manages to somehow weave an even more engaging and fun story along the way.
As the teaser suggested, Pearl takes place in 1918, following the young Pearl (played by Mia Goth, making this technically her third performance in the series) as she tries to overcome her weary, bored wanderlust on her parents’ modest farm. This is the same setting as X, only presented as fresh, vibrant and new, in stark contrast to the former’s more dilapidated and decaying appearance. Pearl herself is similarly fresh-faced and full of life, not quite yet the run-down, defeated recluse that she will eventually become. But much like her future adversary, Maxine, Pearl has ambitions of becoming a star – a dancer in the pictures – and leaving her stale farm life behind her.
Standing in her way is her strict, old-fashioned German mother, and her invalid father, who remains paralyzed after an unspecified illness. Her mother seemingly hates and resents her, seeing something in her that frightens the conservative woman, and that causes her to keep Pearl on a tight leash. And while the film initially frames this as your typical “young woman wants to gain freedom from her oppressive parents” narrative, it quickly becomes apparent that maybe, just maybe, her mother is right: There’s something very, very wrong with Pearl. And, her mother fears, that whatever is lurking underneath her homespun, ‘aw-shucks’ demeanor could spell doom for anyone who crosses her.
Let’s just say there’s a reason their plot of land is called Powder Keg Farms.
The star of the show here, to the surprise of no one who saw X earlier this year, is Mia Goth. Her back-to-back roles on these films have solidified her in my eyes as one of the horror genre’s best and brightest, playing a full gamut of nuanced and complex characters all within the same continuity. Her portrayal of Pearl in her prime contrasts immensely with the older version she played in X, still showing signs of life and a zest for adventure and fame. And yet, there’s shades of that same jaded, vengeful spirit there, the seeds of which begin to take root throughout the course of the film. Likewise, Pearl here is different enough from X‘s Maxine to emphasize just how talented Goth is as a performer, and yet skirts just close enough to her other character that the thematic similarities between the two shine through even further. Which, as I imagine was West’s design, only serves to accentuate X and make it even better in hindsight.
Whereas X had Goth putting on her best impression of a coked-out cross between a sluttier Debbie Harry and a Texas Chainsaw protagonist to play protagonist Maxine, Pearl presents its titular character as a bit more squeaky-clean and picturesque, at least on the surface. Here, Goth channels Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, a source of inspiration that the film takes many other cues from as well. Pearl is much more repressed than Maxine, and as a result, feels much more explosive and dangerous. Maxine was a troubled girl who found herself in a dangerous situation. Pearl is the danger, and once she snaps, the breakdown is glorious to behold. Goth gives one of the most unhinged slasher performances of all time, seeding shades of Shelley Duvall manic Shining energy and Kathy Bates’s deranged, cheery psychosis in Misery. She’s terrifying in a completely unique and unassuming way, and goes deeper and deeper off the edge as the film goes on.
And, naturally, the bodies begin to pile up.
X was a more typical slasher, and as a result, the violence was more random and less targeted. The elderly Pearl and her husband Howard didn’t have a personal grudge against their young victims. They were simply circumstantial. Yet Pearl is a much more intimate film, showing the younger Pearl’s rage and resentment against her family and friends. These slights, both real and imaginary, make for a much more fascinating look into madness than X, giving us more Norman Bates than Leatherface in our star sociopaths.
Similarly, the stylistic choices of Pearl further reinforce these character choices. Gone is X‘s period-appropriate grime and grit, instead replaces here by bright, technicolor visuals and an upbeat, orchestral score. For much of Pearl‘s runtime, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a genuine artifact of the period, with its fanciful color palatte and jaunty sound. This, of course, is precisely the point, as the sanitized, all-American feel of the film only helps to make the eventual turn to violence and madness all the more jarring and upsetting. X was a film about free expression, and the film likewise held nothing back from the audience. Sex, gore, language, the whole package was on full display from the get-go. Pearl, on the other hand, is all about repression, and similarly tries to hide its hand for as long as possible before giving us a peak into what dark delights it has in store.
I adored this film. And, much to my great surprise and relief, it looks like Ti West and Mia Goth aren’t quite finished with this world just yet, with another teaser sitting stealthily at the end of Pearl‘s end credits promising an 80s-themed, VHS conclusion to the story of Pearl and her similarly-deadly counterpart with the upcoming MaXXXine. If West can stick the landing, of which I have no doubt he can, then this has the potential to be one of the most consistently brilliant horror trilogies ever made.
You can be sure I’ll be there opening day whenever MaXXXine hits theaters. Until then, definitely check out Pearl if you loved X as much as I did. And if you haven’t seen X, then do yourself a favor and rectify that egregious error. You’ll be glad you did.