By Brendan Graham
2022 has been a treat for horror fans wanting something new and refreshing, and of course, I’m referencing the incredible film ‘X’ directed by Ti West. It was a genre slam dunk, with memorable characters, gnarly kills, and an authentic feel of the 70s and the beginning of the adult film era. Fans of ‘X’ will also remember Pearl, our memorable elderly murderer who just wanted to feel beautiful and young again (but also had some even deeper, messed-up agenda hiding beneath the surface). If you were wondering how a woman could get so twisted in her ideals, A24 is rewarding you with a prequel story that feels like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ but with sex, murder, and a demented sense of humor. PEARL may be slightly flawed at times, but it was also a feast for the eyes and a welcome addition to a wonderful year of horror. Ti West delivers two well-made horror flicks this year, and that’s a feat to be celebrated.
In this prequel which takes place during World War I and during the height of the Spanish Flu pandemic, we are introduced to Pearl (Mia Goth), a young woman helping on her parent’s farm while her husband is away fighting the war. She’s not very happy with her farm life and longs to be in the spotlight, much like the chorus girls in the films she’d sneak away to see in town. Pearl’s mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) is a stubborn, domineering woman who is also caring for her paralyzed and ill husband (Matthew Sunderland). She insists that Pearl give up on her nonsense dreams and help take care of her ailing father and her responsibilities on the farm. When Pearl meets a projectionist (David Corenswet) at the picture house she frequents in town, he sparks her need to succeed, and to get away from this boring life she’s currently living - of course, he has no idea the lengths she will go to fulfill her dreams. Murder and mayhem ensue.
Fans of ‘X’ who are expecting another aggressive slasher film may find themselves a bit disappointed because PEARL takes its time to tell the story of this young woman who just wants to live a better life, no matter the cost. This is a character piece that just happens to feature gruesome kills. The film is delightful, focusing on the use of color and light to add to the whimsy. The costuming and script make this melodrama a convincing period piece, that also immerses the viewer in what Ti West describes as a demented Disney-like experience. Mia Goth absolutely nails this performance. She is captivating, sincere, and delightfully unhinged. You feel her pain but you’re also afraid of her at times, switching between those two sensations frequently is a tough act, but Goth does it so effortlessly. There’s a scene towards the end of the movie where Goth is monologuing about how she truly feels and I can see acting classes using this as a class example. She’s that good.
As I mentioned before, this movie is an entirely different beast than ‘X’ was, and that does sort of play against it in a few ways. Audiences expecting the gritty and nasty adult film tone and not the technicolor dreamlike filmscape that they are being presented with may find themselves not taking the movie as seriously. Sure, there are some murders here but they’re not quite as graphic, so the gorehounds may feel a little letdown. The film also compares the Spanish Flu pandemic to our current predicament, so for folks who are trying to escape that narrative, you might want to look elsewhere as well.
Overall, PEARL is unique and a visual throwback to a generation of films that have been forgotten by many (although I don’t recall Mary Poppins having dismemberments, so this is an upgrade in that department). It’s got heart, charm, and a fantastic performance by Mia Goth. I’m interested to see what West has in store for us in ‘MaXXXine’ which takes place in the ’80s and is a direct sequel to ‘X’.
PEARL is now playing in theaters.