Pearl Is a Grimy and Gory Tribute to Classic Hollywood
James Jay Edwards reviews Pearl, a prequel to X and a horror slasher film directed by Ti West, starring Mia Goth, and co-written by West and Goth. (A24 Films)
Earlier this year, writer/director Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) brought us one of the best movies of 2022 with X. While filming X in New Zealand, West’s cast and crew got stuck in quarantine due to the COVID pandemic. So, what did they do? They made another movie while they were there, a prequel to X called Pearl.
(Pearl, theatrical release poster, courtesy of A24 Films)
Set in 1918, a good fifty-plus years before the events of X, Pearl focuses on the younger days of the woman who would (spoiler alert for X) become the killer in X, the appropriately named Pearl (played by Mia Goth, who also played final girl Maxine in X). While her husband is off fighting in World War I, Pearl works the farm on which she lives with her domineering mother (Tandi Wright from The Returned) and her invalid father (The Nightingale’s Matthew Sunderland). She longs to be more than that, though; she wants to be a dancer in the movies, and as her oppression collides with her dreams, her fragile psyche explodes.
Reportedly, the story and screenplay for Pearl was cooked up by West and Goth over FaceTime while they were quarantining for two weeks in order to enter New Zealand to make X. The pair was so excited by the character of Pearl that they thought she deserved more than just the fumbling, bumbling figure she posed in X. She deserved an origin story. So, they wrote one.
(Pearl, photos by Christopher Moss, courtesy of A24 Films)
Pearl has a different vibe than that of X. While X leaned hard into the seventies grindhouse aesthetic of its time period, Pearl has the classic, technicolor look of a golden age Hollywood movie, with a style not unlike that of The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind. It’s as much a tribute to classic Hollywood as X is a tribute to exploitation shockers. Except, although there are more parallels to The Wizard of Oz in Pearl than just the look of the film, the story is more Lizzy Borden than Dorothy Gale.
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While Pearl is, of course, a horror movie, with all of the blood, guts, and gore of one, it’s also a melodrama, striking an interesting juxtaposition between the sweet naivety and brutal bloodlust of its main character. And Goth plays it perfectly, from her first wide-eyed introduction with her farm animal friends to the uncomfortably long final shot over which the closing credits roll. The character is surprisingly nuanced for a psychopath, and Goth brings both an over-the-top energy and a quiet subtlety to the role that, frankly, makes it so that the audience can’t imagine anyone else doing it.
(Pearl, photo by Christopher Moss, courtesy of A24 Films)
Because Pearl is a horror movie, Ti West pays loving tribute to classic fright flicks as well as classic Hollywood fare. There are homages to everything from Psycho to Carrie (and, like X, even a nod or two to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Add in the winks to the technicolor Hollywood movies (did we mention all of the references to The Wizard of Oz?) and West seems to be showing off his knowledge of film history. And, again as he did with X, he does it without making Pearl feel like a ripoff of anything else.
Even though they are part of the same overall story, Pearl and X can exist independently of each other. Neither needs to be seen in order to appreciate the other. However, each does have continuity with the other, so they feel more like companion pieces rather than prequel-and-sequel. They enrich each other but can be enjoyed separately. And West has announced a third movie, MaXXXine, which will follow the exploits of Goth’s surviving character from X into the eighties. So, Ti West may have not only found a muse in Mia Goth, but a horror franchise with Pearl–X–MaXXXine.
Pearl is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Check out the podcast Eye On Horror for more with James Jay Edwards, and also features Jonathan Correia and Jacob Davison.