When writer/director Ti West debuted his slasher film X at South By Southwest in March, he announced he secretly shot a prequel back-to-back with it that would fill in the backstory for X’s elderly killer. Nine months later, we have Pearl, a horror movie as indebted to Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s as X was inspired by independently-produced slashers of the 1970s. Though this chapter takes place in 1918, when talkies hadn’t even been invented, West also taps into a golden age of Hollywood aesthetic with allusions to The Wizard of Oz and early Disney features. It’s in service of a villain origin story that generates a laudable amount of sympathy for its subject, mainly due to another outstanding performance from Mia Goth.
Sixty years before the events of X, the young Pearl (Goth) lives and works on a farm with her stern German immigrant mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) while waiting for her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), to return from the Great War. Unsatisfied with the squalor of her circumstances, Pearl goes to the theater in town to watch the Palace Follies dancers and aspire to a more glamorous life. She meets a handsome projectionist (David Corenswet), who immediately takes a liking to her and encourages Pearl to pursue her dancing dreams. Pearl’s sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) informs her that a nearby church is holding auditions for a new chorus line member, which Pearl naturally sees as her ticket off the farm.
Even those who haven’t seen X should be able to surmise that Pearl’s dreams of stardom don’t exactly pan out, but the film’s merits allow it to stand alone and make this a story worth delving into. While some of the early stylistic touches can come across as self-indulgent, which isn’t terribly out of character for West as a director, Pearl gradually begins to settle into itself as a sort of twisted fairy tale with themes similar to those in X about fame and fortune. There are other shared details with its sequel, from the screening of a stag film to the appearance of a certain hungry alligator, that should delight those who saw West’s previous effort. There are also numerous parallels drawn between the Spanish flu outbreak of the era to the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter of which actually helped West to pursue production for this unlikely prequel.
Goth, who co-wrote the Pearl script along with West, donned layers of makeup to play the older version of her character in X, but is able to be much more expressive here as the ingénue-turned-murderer. As she performs tasks like feeding the farm animals or bathing her father, it almost seems like Goth could break out into an “I Want” Disney song at any moment, even though she also exhibits disturbing tendencies from the get-go. Her wide-eyed innocence giving way to madness reminded me of Shelley Duvall, particularly in her tormented performance from The Shining; one imagines Goth had an infinitely more enjoyable time making this movie. She does an excellent job getting us inside Pearl’s headspace, especially in a flawlessly-performed barn-burner of a third-act monologue presented in an unbroken take.
As he did during SXSW, West announced during Pearl’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this month that X would get yet another entry in this series called MaXXXine, following the title character into the 1980s. Interestingly enough, Maxine was also played by Goth, meaning that her dual role in X will now have a prequel for one of the characters and a sequel for the other.
It’s been quite a treat watching this peculiar trilogy emerge piece by piece as West and Goth find new ways to flesh out the flawed characters. Both films have leaned more heavily toward the aforementioned confessional monologue from Pearl or the “Landslide” sequence from X, that achieve unreserved beauty and wisdom. Horror often depicts humans at their worst, but Pearl makes room for the hopes and desires that drive us to be better.
New movies coming this weekend
Playing only in theaters is Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller starring Florence Pugh and Harry Styles about a 1950s housewife living with her husband in a utopian experimental community who begins to worry that his glamorous company could be hiding disturbing secrets.
Streaming on Peacock is Meet Cute, a romantic comedy starring Kaley Cuoco and Pete Davidson about a young woman who discovers a time machine in a nail salon and uses it to continually fix elements of a date she had the previous night.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Sidney, a documentary honoring the legendary Sidney Poitier and his legacy as an iconic actor, filmmaker, and activist at the center of Hollywood and the Civil Rights Movement.