Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Pearl (2022) dir. Ti West

A horror prequel goes Technicolor


With the possible exception of the second act of Barbarian, there has been no greater surprise in horror this year than the return of Ti West. West, of course, was relatively recently heralded as the Next Best Thing in Horror: he helped usher in the current wave of quote-unquote “elevated horror” with his 2009 feature The House of the Devil, and quickly followed it with The Innkeepers and The Sacrament (both highly underrated in this critic’s opinion), segments in anthology films like V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, and a supporting role in Adam Wingard’s cracking horror comedy You’re Next. In recent years, however, West seemed to disappear. He directed the non-horror western In a Valley of Violence with Ethan Hawke, as well as a smattering of TV episodes, but those waiting for the director’s next exercise in terror were left looking at their watches.

Until this past spring, that is, when A24 abruptly announced the imminent arrival of a new Ti West joint. The contents of that film were just as surprising as its release: a far cry from the slow-burn dread of House of the Devil, X was a delightfully raunchy throwback to the glory days of the grindhouse, complete with gallons of blood, ample nudity, and a dual role from Mia Goth as both the aspiring porn-star final girl and the decrepit, homicidal old woman pursuing her. But the biggest surprise was saved for the very end: tacked on Marvel-style to the end credits was a teaser trailer for a second new Ti West thriller, a prequel once again starring Goth as the killer, this time in the prime of her youth. Now, less than six months after X, Pearl is here– and it’s just as bloody delightful as its predecessor.

Set in 1918 on the very same farm as X, Pearl could at first be mistaken for a classic Judy Garland musical, as its wide-eyed farmgirl dances through the family barn, telling her animal friends (all named after silent movie royalty– Charlie, Mary, Theda) that she’s going to be a star. Like so many cornfed ingenues, Pearl dreams of leaving the farmstead and seeing the world, but is held back by a strict mother (Tandi Wright), an invalid father (Matthew Sunderland), and a husband (Alistair Sewell) stuck fighting overseas. Her only haven is the local picturehouse, where she strikes up a flirtatious relationship with a worldly projectionist (David Corenswet). But Pearl has a secret dark side; she casually murders the occasional small animal, for example, and feeds them to the gigantic alligator swishing around the old fishing hole. Those who have seen X of course know that Pearl never does escape the family farm, so the tension is not wondering if this powderkeg of potential violence will go off– it’s when, how, and at the bodily expense of whom.

When the first teaser for Pearl first unspooled at the end of X, viewers could be forgiven for assuming it was a throwaway comedy skit; between its faux-technicolor sheen and Goth’s deliberately broad acting, it feels less like a follow-up to X and more like an alternate-universe MGM adaptation of an EC horror comic. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Pearl’s postmodern theatricality is a feature, not a bug. In an era of muddy, CG-drenched visuals, the vivid colors are a true breath of fresh air; there are shades of candy-apple red and blue-sky blue on display here that I feel like I haven’t seen on the big screen in years. Likewise, the score, co-written by Tim Williams and X composer Tyler Bates, is a suite of strings playing actual tunes and motifs, as opposed to the indistinct, textural chug that has become the norm. As odd as it feels to say of this tossed-off afterthought of a horror sequel, Pearl may legitimately be one of the best-looking films of the year.

To be clear, when I refer to Pearl as an “afterthought,” I am not knocking its quality so much as describing the circumstances of its creation. West co-wrote the screenplay with Goth to stave off boredom during the then-customary two-week quarantine before shooting X in New Zealand; when it became apparent that they actually had something, West secured an extension on the shooting schedule and, in true Roger Corman fashion, shot Pearl on the same sets with much of the same crew. Watching Pearl, one can almost imagine the creative frenzy from which it was born. Pearl may be a budding serial killer, but the love that West and Goth have developed for this character is palpable. I can imagine a scenario in which West spends the remaining decades of his career returning to this world, the character aging alongside Goth as her killing spree spans the twentieth century– like Antoine Doinel, but with more impalement.*

I’d keep seeing them, too, because Goth in this role is nothing short of a revelation. Mia Goth has become something of a fixture in recent years in the arthouse/genre sphere, lending her off-kilter energy to everything from Claire Denis’s High LIfe to Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. Her performance here, however, is easily the best of her young career. Goth is so guileless and hammy in the early outing that it’s easy to overlook the nuances in her performance; the genuine hurt in her eyes, for instance, as she is berated by her mother. The trick is revealed at the film’s climax, wherein Goth delivers, over the course of a single take, a truly heart-wrenching monologue about her inner turmoil. It’s the sort of scene that would be tailor-made for an Oscar clip if the Academy was the sort of body that gave awards to films about pitchfork-wielding maniacs.

Pearl builds on themes introduced in X, of frustrated dreams and the allure of stardom by any means necessary (“I will not accept a life I do not deserve,” the mantra of Goth’s aspiring porn star Maxine in the earlier film, could just as easily be attributed to Pearl). Yet it is, improbably, its own work– one need not watch one to enjoy the other, and could conceivably even watch both without realizing they’re connected– and, even more improbably, might be the better film. Where X is a delicious slice of grindhouse throwback sleaze, Pearl manages to be both more adventurous (it is the only horror movie in recent memory with a dream ballet in the third act) and more grounded (it was inevitable that a film would draw parallels between the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and our current situation, but I don’t think anyone would have expected it to be this film). Though only in his early forties, West seems to be entering a second act of his career– and I’m thrilled to see where he goes next.

* – Hours after I wrote this, it was revealed that West and Goth are indeed working on a third film in the X series, Maxxxine, a sequel following Goth’s younger character into the 1980s. 

dir. Ti West
102 min.

Opens Friday, 9/15 @ Somerville Theatre (as well as most major multiplexes)

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