A film review by Craig J. Koban December 15, 2022

Rank: #17

PEARL  jjj

2022, R, 102 mins.

Mia Goth as Pearl  /  David Corenswet as The Projectionist  /  Tandi Wright as Mother  /  Matthew Sunderland as Father  /  Emma Jenkins-Purro as Mitzy  /  Alistair Sewell as Howard

Written and directed by Ti West




I can't honestly remember the last time two horror franchise installments - the first being a relative standalone entry and the second being a prequel to it - came out in the same calendar year and just several months apart.  Writer/director Ti West's PEARL serves as a prequel to his very own X, which came out earlier in 2022 and was a 1970s period specific slasher that I described - looking back on my fond review of it -  as FRIDAY THE 13TH meets BOOGIE NIGHTS with a healthy dosage of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE thrown in for good measure.  I enjoyed that amalgam of influences in X and thought that West made a brutally efficient genre exercise.  My one big complaint of X, though, was that the film's main villains -  a couple that owned a farm that allowed a porn crew to occupy and shoot there, only later to be pick off one at a time by them - were poorly developed and, for the most part, were backwoods caricatures on pure autopilot.  One of them was, yes, the seriously demented elder in Pearl. 

Now comes PEARL, and right from the get-go this prequel seems to be offering me precisely what I wanted in terms of fleshing out X's seriously deranged serial murderer.  Played by a very game Mia Goth (in one of X's dual roles), Pearl was, for all intents and purposes, a mindless monster that usually paraded around naked and slaughtered those damn, dirty pornographers.  X was steeped in certain types of horror films and was a purposely grungy, grindhouse affair that looked like it was actually shot in the 70s and could have made for release at midnight screenings in low rent cinemas.  PEARL, rather refreshingly, is the furthest thing away from X in most respects.  Firstly, it's set several decades in the past as it deep dives into the origins of its titular character, and well before she became a mindless, zombified killer.  Secondly and most crucially, it's stylistically made to look like some sort of bright and opulent technicolor picture from Hollywood's Golden Age.  If any unsuspecting viewer goes into PEARL completely cold and without having seen X then it would be easy to see how they could be fooled into thinking this was quaint and innocent homage to films like THE WIZARD OF OZ.  This only makes the sick and twisted turns of the plot all the more highly effective later on. 

PEARL takes place during 1918, far away from the Disco era of the last film in this franchise.  This is mostly likely intentional because the Spanish Flu pandemic that was then ravaging the world figures heavily into the overall story here, which mirrors the current COVID pandemic and how it has had a massive impact on the film industry (that West is a part of).  Goth returns as Pearl, but in obviously a much different form.  She's 60 years younger and looks as sweet and innocent as a pigtailed Dorothy Gale from THE WIZARD OF OZ.  She's the young married daughter of German immigrants, with her mother in Ruth (a superbly chilling Tandi Wright) having a relative stranglehold on her daughter, forbidding her to do anything but tending to the needs of their farm and her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland).  Pearl has few places of escape from the social horror show that is her home life, and with her spouse (Alister Sewell) overseas fighting in WWI she finds herself at an emotional crossroads.  She knows that she can't stay on this farm forever, but her mother has made it next to impossible to escape her control and wrath.  Deep down, Pearl dreams of being a dancer, which Ruth thinks is ridiculous hogwash.   

Hmmmmm...if there were only some way that Pearl could rid herself of this woman and her responsibilities to her father? 



Like all young women with a mind for rebellion, Pearl seeks out solace via the kindness of strangers, which takes her to a chance meeting with a local cinema projectionist named (credit as The Projectionist, played by David Corenswset), who seems outwardly congenial and caring for Pearl's well being, but - who are we kidding? - when are outwardly and strangely kind people ever truly neat and tidy in these types of films?  Pearl has a love for the movies and decides that she wants to be a chorus girl, which the projectionist nurtures.  Things take a weird turn when - during a moment of bonding between the pair - he takes her to a secret room and shows an illicit stag film from Europe that he's not legally allowed to screen to the public (the film uses actual footage from the real short film A FREE RIDE, one of the earliest examples of movie pornography).  Pearl is oddly not entirely creeped out by the film, which somehow feeds into her burning desire to become a star.  She confides in the projectionist that she wishes that her mother and father would just die (not a healthy sign).  Pearl's sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), reveals to her that there's a local audition for chorus girls, and Pearl decides to go against her mother's wishes and try out.  She fails miserably at it, becomes psychologically unglued, and...well... the rest of the film probably won't surprise anyone that has seen X. 

One of my long standing issues with sequels (or even prequels, for that matter) is that they often just emerge as regurgitated greatest hits packages that lazily spoon feed audiences what they want and what they've already seen before.  PEARL simply doesn't do this...at all.  The dreary and grainy veneer that typified West's thoroughly sordid X has now been replaced with a candy hued visuals that literally pop right off of the screen.  Beyond the acknowledgement to technicolor pictures of the past, West has also opted to used highly decorative credit fonts, editorial dissolves and wipes, and all other sorts of aesthetic tricks that make PEARL - like X before it - come off like a product of a different time in Hollywood's past.  If both X and PEARL share one thing in common it's that there's a supreme appreciation for wildly divergent movie genres and the look and feel for movies that simply don't get made anymore.  PEARL is also fully cemented in its time and place in exploring the world of silent cinema and the kinds of films that preoccupied the pre-talkie era.  And, as already mentioned, PEARL was a pandemic shot movie that also happens to be about another fact based pandemic.  I like when films find a manner of cleverly echoing many of our shared concerns and anxieties that we're experiencing today, and the fact that PEARL doesn't fleetingly deal with the Spanish Flu (people talk about their fears of getting sick, citizens mask in public and wonder whether there will be light at the end of the tunnel) makes it have a gut punching relevancy for viewers and even before the real sickening horror show begins. 

And at the true heart of darkness in this film is Pearl herself, and this character that was just a primal force of evil in X is now given layers and depth that makes her become almost more frightening here because of how her cute and bubbly facade masks early inclinations towards hostile violence.  She has that proverbial girl next door good looks and innocently inviting country bumpkin demeanor, but something from the very first scene in the film hints that she's a few haystacks short of a bushel.  When she's not wildly engaging in wish fulfillment fantasies on the farm by dancing and prancing around with garden implements like she was some sort of Hollywood starlet on screen she's then...ruthlessly murdering small barn animals to feed them to her BFF (an alligator).  Her heart is not in her Texas farm.  She wants to be a star.  She just takes the most gruesome approach to overcoming her family obstacles.  West exudes great patience in PEARL before he lets his film devolve into sadistic madness (and when that comes it's all the more unsettling).  PEARL is at its best when it examines the slow unraveling of its character's sanity, which gives her more weight and dimension than what she was afforded in X.  Last time we saw Pearl, Goth was caked under pounds of grotesque old lady makeup, but here she's a seemingly ordinary looking twentysomething, which allows Goth to tap into her boundless youthful energy and naiveté.  And when she does turn it's alarmingly mesmerizing, allowing Goth to pull out all of the performance chops this go around to play the same role once again, but via a different lens and with way more nuance.  One of PEARL's most unsettling sequences doesn't feature blood spewing violence, but rather a close-up on Goth as she delivers an endlessly disturbing monologue that allows audiences to fully understand how she ended up the way she did in X.   

As the film reaches its unavoidable climax, West closes everything with another agonizingly long close-up of an utterly nutty Pearl as she's simultaneously grinning from ear to ear while trying to fight away tears.  It's so economical, but astonishingly scary.  What started off like some sort of cute and bubbly Disney film ends up all going to hell in spectacularly macabre fashion, and that's perhaps why I'm gravitating more towards thinking that PEARL is better than X.  West's earlier film was a confident horror genre exercise as a backwoods and rough neck slasher and was deliciously sleazy, but part of me wished it was smarter and more subversive.  PEARL, on the other and, is more free-wheeling in its wild eyed creative ambitions to be decidedly dissimilar to what has come before it in profound ways.  The big elephant in this prequel's room is that seeing X beforehand will be an absolute requirement.  PEARL's effectiveness is tied to it being a companion piece to X and simply won't work as well as a pure standalone entry.  That, again, is a drawback to anyone seeking out PEARL without being in the know as to its previous and recent cinematic legacy.  Having said that, West has made a brainy, darkly funny, wonderfully stylish, and haunting  monster film that's wholly unlike most other monster films out there, and one that absolutely corrects one of the issues with its previously released series entry.    

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