Pearl doesn’t indulge the same genre thrills as X, but it does deliver an idiosyncratic, bloody little chamber piece that succeeds in a different but undeniable way.
Ti West’s X, from this past spring, was a terrific return to form for the director and remains the best horror movie of 2022. Now there’s Pearl, a prequel, apparently shot concurrently, and while it might not be another blast of genre thrills at the same level, it still functions as a self-contained piece of genre filmmaking and a terrific showcase for its lead actress. If you remember, X took place in the late 70’s, with a group of young filmmakers showing up at a rural Texas farm to shoot a porno movie and running afoul of the elderly (and, in this case, titular) Pearl, whose jealousy over their sexual frankness and aspirations of fame triggered her thirst for blood. Spoiler alert: she slaughtered them all, until star of the show Maxine turned the tables, killed Pearl, and escaped.
In X, Mia Goth played both Maxine and, under heavy makeup, the very elderly Pearl, and this prequel has Goth in the lead again, playing Pearl as an ambitious, abused, deeply troubled, and very violent young woman. It’s 1918, and Pearl is stuck on the same family homestead that will reappear in X, with her vindictive, controlling mother (Tandi Wright) and nearly catatonic and paralyzed father (Matthew Sunderland), a victim of the Spanish Flu. The possibilities of airborne doom and of contracting “The Germ” hang heavily over Pearl, with her frequent visits to town to pick up medicine and sneak a picture show punctuated by mask-wearing and reminders of ongoing chemical combat in World War I (where Pearl’s husband Howard is off fighting). All Pearl wants is to escape, and her desperate need for love (and by extension, sex) and attention is a catalyst for burgeoning bloodlust.
Goth is the entire picture here; where X hinted at a human dimension for its killer scary old couple, Pearl’s only project is to put you into this young woman’s twisted, incredibly distraught head. Her domineering mother despises her beauty and dreams, her father is unable to provide anything but a perceived burden, and her friends think she’s a hick. Only when a projectionist in town takes a prurient and predictably single-minded interest in her does Pearl roar to life, and her later fixation on an audition for a state dance troupe can only signal impending tragedy. But don’t be mistaken: Pearl isn’t a treatise about abused or objectified women, nor does it have anything specific to say about ambition or stardom. It’s simply a tale of a girl pushed too far, whose retreat into fantasy has extremely deleterious consequences. The references here to The Wizard of Oz and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are by no means coincidental.
West’s slow-burn pacing and extremely dry but occasionally sophomoric humor are in full effect here, with very little violence occurring until beyond the halfway point, and a sly grin seems to crawl across the entire film as we constantly await Pearl’s inevitable snapping. When it does happen, Goth produces what might be the scene of the year, a one-take confessional monologue detailing all of her anxieties and anger that, in a world that honored genre movies, should win her an Oscar. And where X had the most monumental sex scene of this year, Pearl has the best end credits. Could this have been a more rambunctious horror film in the spirit of its predecessor? Sure. But that would have been the easy choice, and one that would have deprived audiences of this idiosyncratic, bloody little chamber piece.