Pearl is a showcase for the incredible talent of Mia Goth

Director Ti West has fun with this prequel to his porno-chic slasher throwback X.

Earlier this year, Ti West released one of his most successful films: the grimy ’70s porno chic slasher throwback X. Building off his collaboration with actress Mia Goth, they decided to make a prequel (and at the presentation of Pearl‘s world premiere in Toronto, they announced there would be a third film, making a neat little trilogy). Transporting us back to a time nearly 50 years before the events of X, Pearl takes us back to 1918, where we learn the origins of one of X‘s unexpected villains.

We saw the farm for the first time in X, and it was sunburnt and grimy. The lustre was long gone and what was left was a sallow greyed husk. As Pearl opens, we’re greeted with the same location in brightly saturated TechniColor hues. The music swells with saccharine melodrama, and the white cursive font introduces the cast and crew. While you would never mistake Pearl for a movie made in the first part of the 20th, it nonetheless captures the tone of those films. 

Two frames of reference immediately jump out: The Wizard of Oz and the horny farmer girl porno cliché. Pearl lives with her parents during a period of scarcity; there is no laughter in their home. Hanging in the cornfield is an especially creepy scarecrow (a shade less creepy than the Scarecrow in Return to Oz). He captures the imagination of the dreamy Pearl on at least one occasion, including when she sensually pulls him down from his perch to dance and ride him to the point of orgasm. The farmer girl cliché is less specific though the trope was extremely pervasive at the time the characters in X would have been making their film. As a character, Pearl is pulled between two impulses: to be in the movies and a desire to be railed. 

Is there something wrong with Pearl? The people around her seem to think so. Her mother tries to shame her into becoming normal, well aware that if she pushes the wrong buttons, her daughter might explode. Even Pearl, in all her wide-eyed charm, suspects she might not be like the other girls and begs the men she ensnares for reassurance. 

As the film’s horror elements unwrap, Ti West takes inspiration from mental unravelling films like Repulsion. As a nod to that film, in particular, the passage of time and the mental deterioration of our main character is charted by a rotting, maggoty suckling pig left out to bake in the sun. As its skin peels and it gets swallowed up by little writhing larva, Pearl is moving beyond the point of redemption. Her desire to possess and destroy overwhelms any goodness that may have existed within her at some point.

The real success of the movie rests on the shoulders of Mia Goth, who manages to capture both sides of Pearl: her sweetness and impulsive destruction. As a character, Pearl has been shaped by the movies she has seen; when she is being watched, her persona often shifts. In some cases, as with a flirtation with a man, her body seems to turn inward and away, and her eyes look up in teary resonance. She co-opts the chaste screen queens as an ideal before revealing her true, ravenous nature. On stage, she smiles impossibly broad, but her eyes are desperate and panicked. The film’s final act also has Goth deliver a rapturous monologue that goes on for many minutes, an incredible tribute to her talents and presence.

In many ways, though, Pearl feels slight, more of an experiment in style and a showcase for Goth. For much money, it is preferable to X if only because Goth is more front and centre. Horror fans looking for more bloodshed might prefer the more traditionally structured X — though it would be a mistake to think Pearl isn’t without some blood, guts and murder. As a horror fan, the playfulness at work here tickles me. It’s great to see a filmmaker toying with style and tropes and creating a reasonably entertaining film about an environment rarely seen in the genre. ■

Pearl, directed by Ti West

Pearl opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 16.

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