Never has a horror villain’s origin story been so sweet. Ti West’s Pearl, hot off the release train of its predecessor X, takes us back into the isolating world of a Texas farmstead, where dreams of stardom find an abrupt and sometimes brutal end.
Before March of this year, none of us knew Pearl existed. But Ti West dropped a horror advent calendar on our laps with the release of his 70s porn-colored-glasses slasher X, teasing that a second film, an origin story of the film’s villain, had already been shot and would soon be in our eyeholes.
Enter Pearl. The year is 1918, and X’s main antagonist is but a starry-eyed farmgirl. Mia Goth slips back into her boots like a pro, having navigated both the roles of Maxine, X’s heroine, and a much older and more sinister Pearl in the previous film.
In X, we hardly know Pearl. Pearl plays the role of a ‘Part One’ slasher villain – she’s limited to sadistic glimpses in-between slaughters. She’s a depraved hostess, fuelled by a jealous rage of the flaunted youth and sex that happened to traipse on her property. And perhaps too clouded by our own disgusting ageism, we only see Pearl as a monster. A monster of regrets and rage, compounded by time.
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But youthful Pearl is anything but. She’s fresh-faced and bushy-tailed, trying her best to live out her chore-filled days like a Disney princess; serenading their cow, practicing dances on the haybales in the barn, and killing and murdering farm animals to feed her pet alligator. Okay, scratch that last one. Her husband Harold is away at the war, so Pearl’s once-ticket out of this simple life remains in purgatory. It doesn’t help that her mother is harsh and cold, and her father has been paralyzed by the Spanish flu.
But Pearl is tired of waiting. When her sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) informs her of local auditions for a touring church dance troupe, Pearl may have just found her ticket out. But we’ve all seen X, so we know this isn’t going to go well…
“The whimsical, melodic tone of Pearl is refreshing and unique.”
Ti West has already proved himself masterful at slipping into an era. X was a stylized dream of 70s sleaze, and his much beloved House of the Devil harkened back to the wide cinematography, and long pull zooms of yesteryear. He’s gone way back for Pearl, infusing modern picture and sound with a whimsical soundscape and Mia Goth’s over-exuberant expressions. Pearl lives in the candy-coated world of Wizard of Oz, except her journey down the yellow brick road is discovering she isn’t Dorothy, she’s the Wicked Witch of the West.
The whimsical, melodic tone of Pearl is refreshing and unique. It keeps Pearl energized while it zips and turns through a modest plot. We all know origin stories can be a bit of a slog. Audiences already know the endgame, so the journey needs to be engaging in more ways than just story alone. But Pearl sits like a hard candy in your mouth, a steady burst of flavor that dissolves on its own accord.
Pearl would be nothing without Mia Goth. An ambitious performance hindered by heavy prosthetics in X, she’s able to shed her confines of time for Pearl. The film is a collaboration between West and Goth, both sharing writing credits, and it’s no surprise when you see Pearl emote. Goth knows this character through and through; every glimmer in her eye, every sinister inkling of her true character, every revelatory word. Pearl is Goth’s dance, and she fills the stage better than a whole troupe in Palace Follies.
“Pearl is Goth’s dance, and she fills the stage better than a whole troupe in Palace Follies.”
Without Pearl, X landed a little half-baked. It was standard slasher fare that came in boisterously edgy packaging. Even the promise of titillation of the emerging porn era of the 70s wasn’t enough to make a sad old woman seeking revenge an icon. But Pearl may just be enough to change all that. This villain is given a dedicated opening act, a footnote to justify her behavior while she rip-roared through the film’s predecessor.
On one hand, it’s a shame the modern film landscape requires cinematic universes and episodic storytelling. I thoroughly enjoyed Pearl, but still can’t help but feel like X was a 2-hour trailer to this film. Can Pearl stand alone? Yes, but the candy won’t be as sweet unless you’ve eaten your dinner first. It’ll be interesting to see how the two halves feel with the addition of the just announced MaxXxine, the promised end to this surprise-its-a-trilogy.
Pearl is out now in theatres. Let us know what you thought of the film, and Ti West’s X, over in our Discord!