Ti West and Mia Goth follow up their ’70s porn slasher six months prior with a bloody, fascinating mashup of Psycho and The Wizard of Oz.
It’s safe to say that no one necessarily asked for a sequel to Ti West‘s X, especially six mere months after its release. Not because it was bad, mind you; it was actually quite good, a nifty throwback to Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a hefty soupcon of Debbie Does Dallas tossed in the mix. But its tale of a ragtag amateur-porn crew besieged by a murderous old country crone envious of their youthful beauty and raging libidos hardly cried out for a followup. Yet here we are with Pearl, a prequel that dabbles in decidedly different genre homages but might just be the superior slasher of the two.
X star Mia Goth (who co-wrote the script with West while in quarantine in New Zealand prior to filming X) returns as a younger version of Pearl, the aforementioned crone who’s spent her entire life on a remote Texas farm but forever dreamed of something more. It’s 1918, and Pearl is a fresh-faced farm girl who sings and dances around the barn to an audience of cows and lambs, dreaming of escaping her dull, directionless life for the glamour of Hollywood.
But the nation is ravaged by war and illness (its timely depiction of life under the Spanish Flu, with pedestrians in masks and constant talk of quarantine and infection, is no accident). Pearl’s husband Howard is off to fight in World War I, leaving her in the dictatorial grip of her taskmistress mother (Tandi Wright) and catatonic, flu-crippled father (Matthew Sunderland).
Pearl’s only relief from the doldrums of her suffocating existence comes when she sneaks off to the movies when she runs errands in town; her favorite is “Palace Follies,” with its lineup of chorus girls she hopes to join someday. Well, not her only relief, we see in the film’s opening minutes, as West washes Goth in Technicolor sweep and Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’ warm, woodwind-heavy throwback score as she gleefully butchers a goose with a pitchfork. There’s something wrong with Pearl, and her stifling home life certainly doesn’t help matters. She chirps and grins with that ear-to-ear smile and Judy Garland-esque breathy singsong, but those Southern niceties hide something cruel and sinister underneath.
Don’t confuse this with a grim Grindhouse slasher like X, though, as Pearl plays out more like a straightforward melodrama with a few more axe murders. That’s a smart move, as West eases us in with the bucolic warmth and hazy, sentimental colors of an Old Hollywood classic before painting the screen red with Pearl’s constipated spite and resentment. This one doesn’t follow the typical rules of Hollywood horror: We stay with Pearl the whole time; she’s our perspective character, and every outburst or wide-eyed look of longing is designed to keep us in her twisted, yet oddly sympathetic point of view.
It’s a smart move, too, as Pearl essentially serves as a show-stopping showcase for Goth, who leans into the role with all the vein-popping gusto of an absolute star. Over the course of the film, you watch her transform from Judy Garland to Martha Hamilton — all sweet and sunshine in the opening acts, curdled into spurts of shrieking fury as the later acts dash her dreams of escape. No one is safe, from her parents to her bubbly, privileged cousin Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) to the handsome projectionist (David Corenswet) who introduces her to the kind of smut she’d later kill over in X.
But West keeps us situated in her swaying, devil-may-care fantasia, from the aforementioned Technicolor haze to more ambitious flights of fancy like a small-town dance audition that turns, in her head, into a Busby Berkeley-adjacent dance number with a chorus line of German soldiers.
Pearl isn’t particularly suspenseful, but that’s by design: It’s a perversion of the small-town-girl follies of Old Hollywood melodramas, scented with the copper aroma of blood. And swinging the axe at her enemies and audience is Goth, stunningly terrifying whether she’s breaking down in a late-film monologue where she accepts her murderous nature or grinning so hard through the entirety of the closing credits the actress herself sheds tears. You might just grin alongside her — not out of psychopathy, but of the deliriously novel prequel you’ve just beheld.
West and Goth plan to finish this erstwhile trilogy with the recently-announced MaXXXine, following Goth’s character from X after the events of that film. But a part of me wants to spend more time with good ol’ Pearl, wasting away in the Texan countryside and waiting for the next reason to snap.
Pearl dreams of Hollywood and kills to get there in theaters now.
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