Pearl (2022)

I don’t think I’d exaggerate by admitting that nobody expected – having emerged from a screening of X last year – that not only Ti West would be expanding this seemingly self-contained piece of homage to the 1970s exploitation cinema into a series of films, but that the film in question had already been filmed. On one hand, the generous dopamine release afforded by West’s movie filled me with a sense of excited anticipation. On the other, however, I wasn’t quite sure the material was malleable enough to sustain more than one story.  

Let’s just say that my reservations were unwarranted because Pearl, a de facto prequel to X, is a phenomenal movie connecting to its predecessor by way of delving into the backstory of the murderous (and memorably horny) Pearl (Mia Goth under a tonne of old lady makeup), whose deadly embrace Maxine (also Mia Goth under considerably less makeup) was attempting to evade in the climactic finale of X. However, breaking stylistically with the gritty Hooper-esque aesthetic of the original film, Pearl introduces its titular character as though she was a lead in a live-action Disney movie.  

Perked up by a distinct Technicolor hue, Pearl lives on her family farm in 1918. This is by the way the very same location which is bound to become a scene of brutal murder, mutilation and torture in the future, complete with the unforgettable crocodile conveniently inhabiting the local pond. She lives together with her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) and domineering mother (Tandi Wright). Because her husband is away overseas fighting in World War I, Pearl leads a depressing everyday existence of caring for her father, tiptoeing around the imposing and deeply authoritarian maternal figure who runs the house and looking after farm animals, none of which sing any songs or dispense any sage Disney-appropriate advice. Her only refuge is cinema. She frequents a local picture house where she also descends into daydreaming about escaping the horror show of her pastoral life by becoming a dancer and a movie star.  

However, this isn’t everything. Unbeknownst to her and maybe against her better judgment, Pearl also slowly descends into madness as the frustration brought about by the crippling claustrophobia of her domestic circumstances amplified by her longing to escape and spread her wings is also slowly causing her to lose her grip on reality. As a result, she manifests as a demented funhouse mirror avatar of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz or a horror show Cinderella who, having fed the cows, gleefully murders a goose or dry humps a scarecrow on her way home from the pictures. And her progressive dive towards complete derangement is sent into overdrive after she is told by her well-off sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) about an opportunity to audition for a travelling dancing troupe that will be making a stop in the town.  

But that’s not even the half of it because Pearl is more of an experience than a story, if that makes any sense. At this point, it is perhaps a bit clearer that Ti West is using the guise of a growing series (and as of writing this article, a short teaser for the third instalment in the series, Maxxxine, has been released) to interrogate stylistically how far he can stretch the boundaries of genre before venturing into the snooty world of pretentious arthouse where entertainment is usually dispensed with as an inconvenience. While X was an open piece of homage to a specific era of filmmaking and a love letter to exploitation cinema of that time, it was also a meta-commentary on the filmmaker’s gaze and thus a bit of a New Wave movie that lingers with the viewer intellectually for much longer than a horror movie typically would. Pearl applies the same methodology to a different template as it departs the archetype of a slasher in favour of a Technicolor musical or a 50s melodrama bespeckled with family-friendly glitz of a Disney live-action classic. 

The result is frightening. We know Pearl is not Cinderella or Dorothy. If pushed, you’d probably find she has more in common with Maleficent, as she is a demented villain-in-the-making on the back of immense psychological trauma and abuse. However, in contrast to a Disney villain, many of whom are defined by one or two overarching traits, Pearl as a character is a deranged tornado of emotional instability that is somehow equally horrifying, pitiable and dangerously mesmerizing. It just goes to show that both Ti West and Mia Goth went to great lengths in fashioning her character because – hyperbole aside – Goth’s turn in this titular role is nothing short of iconic and as time goes on may be regarded on par with Shelley Duvall in The Shining or Kathy Bates in Misery.  

It is honestly fascinating to think how deeply researched and conceptualized this character is. I don’t know if this is sheer happenstance of doing the right thing at the right time, or maybe a confluence of Mia Goth’s intrinsic acting bravado and the opportunity to do something wild. Or maybe it’s the result of having to sit in a makeup chair for twelve hours straight while getting the old Pearl getup on that afforded Goth the time and latitude in marinade in Pearl’s headspace and concoct her truly fascinating worldview.  

What I do know, however, is that the resulting film is an absolute gem because of that. Pearl is a magnificent powerhouse of astute vision, directorial prowess and most of all a brightly lit stage for Mia Goth to do a resplendent song-and-dance number on, which is both a general statement and an acknowledgement of Pearl’s climactic audition scene that sends her into complete embrace of unadulterated madness. It is an honestly singular piece of genre cinema that transcends the now tattered label of “elevated horror”, typically used to describe horror movies that overtly attempt to exist on an allegorical plane.  

Pearl is an elevated horror in that, just like its predecessor, it acknowledges its inspirations and consolidates them into a coherent voice projecting a personality and confidence towards the viewer. Furthermore, the movie itself is equally playful as it is cerebral, which is not something you’d be able to say about a number of recent intellectually inclined horrors like The Night House or Antlers. It is so much more than a psychological character study dressed in symbolism and dread. It is a rollercoaster ride of emotional turmoil that slowly transmutes into a frenzy of gore and a crescendo of insanity that holds on its final C-sharp for minutes on end while Mia Goth’s demented visage envelops the screen for the whole duration of the final credits… and only then you realize Goth doesn’t blink once throughout this prolonged take, but that’s just a cherry on the cake of acting commitment on her behalf.  

Truly, Pearl is a wonderfully refreshing movie that should remind you why horrors are fun. It’s a scary-yet-playful thinking man’s genre film that never intimidates with its intellect, but rather entices the viewer to dabble in the collage of its inspirations like there was no tomorrow.  



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