2022 seems to be something of a landmark year for horror. Between Scream, Nope, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Barbarian, The Black Phone, Fresh, and of course Ti West’s X, there is no shortage of excellent genre filmmaking flooding the market. West already put in the hard work to help establish X as one of the best movies of the year, and with its prequel companion Pearl, he transcends serialized horror in colorful glee. Filmed back-to-back with X, Pearl was written by West and lead star Mia Goth during their two week quarantine in the height of the pandemic. Wanting to utilize the gorgeous sets and assembled crew in New Zealand, Ti West managed to convince A24 into executing this unconventional prequel. Now, Pearl will soon be unleashed upon unsuspecting audiences—those longing for a taste of old-school Hitchcockian horror/suspense or the vibrant Hollywood of yesteryear will discover a masterpiece for the senses.
Whimsical music immediately pulls us into the quaint farm life of Pearl (Goth). Proclaiming herself a “star” and performing for her audience made up of cows in the barn, Pearl longs to pursue her dreams of being a dancer. Before the title treatment, PEARL, flashes onto the screen, Pearl has already violently murdered her first animal, an innocent goose, with a pitchfork. Is this Pearl’s first taste of blood, or are we just following her in the midst of an already-murderous rampage? We never see a kiddie version of Pearl, and by taking this approach, we instead follow Pearl at the most intriguing point of her story.
Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is mentally incapacitated, and needs practically round the clock care. He needs to be pushed around in his wheelchair, his diaper changed, and help eating—all things Pearl is forced to do by her overbearing mother. This is a woman, for all accounts, that recalls Carrie White’s dreadful mom, but less religious. Pearl’s mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) finds her to be selfish and careless. The family is living in the midst of the smallpox crisis. Cleverly, Ti West weaves in covid commentary through the use of the masks that everyone is forced to wear. Fear of sickness is constant, and Ruth is maybe the biggest germaphobe ever. Pearl’s family of German farmers exist on the outside of society, and Pearl is constantly warned to keep in the shadows and make her appearance scarce in town. Ruth is so conniving that she notices a mere eight cents missing, and abruptly tells Pearl she cannot have dinner that night.
The only escape Pearl finds is in the local cinema: “the pictures.” A showing of a film classic sparks the dancing passion in her to a whole new level. Pearl becomes convinced that she is a brilliant dancer. The projectionist (David Corenswet, Hollywood, The Politician) invites Pearl to come back anytime, and even offers to show her a double feature free of charge. The only thing she takes from the man on their first encounter is a cigarette, but even then there is an electric charge between Goth’s Pearl and Corenswet’s projectionist. This aspect of the story has a very romance novel, old-Hollywood feel to it. The graphic nudity of the picture actually comes by way of projection reels in the projectionist’s secret stash—a silent film porno, one of the earliest of its kind. I absolutely loved the return to the themes of filmmaking and specifically pornography that were slathered all over X. Seeing it carry over into Pearl brings its own unique shine of cohesiveness that is sorely lacking from so many modern horror films.
The real launching point for Pearl is when the relatives of her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell), come to drop off a freshly-prepared pig. Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), Howard’s sister, tells Pearl about a major dance opportunity that has come their way! On Saturday, auditions for the Christmas Chorus Line will be taking place, and rumor has it they would be touring seven cities if chosen! While Mitzy is clearly excited about the idea, Pearl is ignited with a sudden fire to get out of her terrible circumstances. She will no longer be held down by the chains of caring for her dying father, feeding the cows, and doing demanding chores for her sadistic mother. No, instead Pearl will win the role of a lifetime and be rid of the farm… permanently. In one of her several conversations with the projectionist, Pearl hints at a possible darker agenda when she mentions wanting her parents to “just die.”
There is stunningly weird imagery everywhere in this movie. Pearl humps a creepy-looking scarecrow. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for easter eggs from X, including Pearl’s bike, and her father’s wheelchair, among others. Influenza fever has overtaken everyone. A vibe of Hitchock’s Psycho comes on strong as Pearl’s secrets are constantly just on the verge of being discovered. Norman Bates would know a thing or two about that! The second time she gets her hands on a pitchfork is horrifying indeed. Rotting carcasses and maggots invade the cotton candy Wizard of Oz aesthetic on the exterior. Once you get through, the inside is rotted and haunting.
Nothing more epitomizes this haunting quality than Goth’s own performance as Pearl. A turn so magnificent manages to be on the same level as her double duty work in X, and a thunder emerges out of her in several key moments. A signature scene—a long one-take where every emotion Pearl has built up through the course of the movie is finally acknowledged in splendidly raw fashion—could go down in movie history with greatest monologues ever. That’s without even mentioning the one-take that ends the movie in memorably manic fashion. A supporting cast is just as strong; I really enjoyed the projectionist, and Mitzy gets to be on the receiving end of the best scene in the movie.
Howard’s character only bookends the movie in sparse involvement. We don’t get to see Pearl and Howard’s love blossom into where it ends up in X. Perhaps another entry could explore something in-between Pearl and X chronologically. Spoiler alert for X—Howard and Pearl are now in their old age still living in the barn and murdering whoever comes their way. What happens from when Howard returns from war to where they end up? Now that’s something I would love to see explored. Until then, Pearl is every bit as wild, unpredictable, and super-charged as Ti West’s X. I’ll be counting down the days until Maxxine arrives, the third entry in the series. Be sure to stick around after the credits for a tease of what’s to come!
Pearl searches for that “X” factor when it debuts exclusively in theaters on Friday, September 16th. It screened at 2022’s Toronto International Film Festival.