People can gripe about how franchises have ruined movies, and to a large extent I agree. No longer can popcorn movies just exist on their own terms without someone in the studio thinking long-term monetization. But if someone can explore more aspects of a film’s story in a way that adds without retreading, that can be tons of fun. We should welcome movies like Pearl, a companion/prequel to X which came out earlier this year. Did it need to be as good, as weird, and as surprising as it is? Absolutely not. But it is, and we can thank Ti West and Mia Goth for that.
Writer-director Ti West has always been eclectic with his films. From the slow burn Satanic Panic throwback of The House of the Devil to the quiet dread of The Innkeepers to a supremely upsetting religious cult horror in The Sacrament. He has never been content to make the same type of movie over and over. Hell, he even made a comedic revisionist western with In a Valley of Violence. So I wouldn’t ever think he’d rest on any kind of laurels. But knowing Pearl was effectively made in tandem with X, you’d think there’d be more similarities in tone or structure or even kinds of scares. But no! They are thematic and narrative partners, neither derivative of the other.
It isn’t strictly necessary for you to have seen X to enjoy Pearl, but it does heighten the experience of both. Star Mia Goth (who co-wrote Pearl with West) played double duty in X, the ’70s-set slasher movie on the set of a no-budget porno film, as both Maxine, the starry-eyed young starlet and Pearl, the octogenarian matriarch of the farm on which the porn shoot takes place. Goth’s portrayal of Pearl in X, in heavy old-age makeup, was supremely unsettling and eerie. As that movie goes along we learn the depth of both Pearl’s bitterness at life and her bloodthirsty psychopathy. The parallels between the characters gives X a lot of its pathos, with Pearl the clear standout character.
As Pearl begins, we see the same farmhouse, same environs as X, but this time it’s 1918. West films the setting through the glossy, oversaturated haze of a young Pearl’s hopes and dreams. The old-Hollywood glamour of the opening credits lets us know farmgirl Pearl wants, needs, so much more than this provincial life. She wants to be like on of the dancing girls she watches in the picture show’s follies reels. Pearl knows there’s something great and special within her; she needs someone to see it and whisk her away.
Unfortunately, 1918 is one of the worst times to want to do anything. Her new husband Howard is off fighting in World War I while a deadly pandemic rages at home. Pearl resides on her family farm under the domineering thumb of her German expat mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Her father (Matthew Sunderland) is in near catatonia after contracting the Spanish flu and Pearl must take care of him and help maintain the dwindling farm.
Pearl sees her ticket out of town in two forms. First, the Bohemian projectionist (David Corenswet), with his suave demeanor and knowledge of Europe. Second, in an upcoming audition for a dance troupe to entertain people throughout the state. Her mother, however, knows there is something “special” inside her, and is terrified by it. I really applaud the film for not making Ruth just the hateful matriarch but giving her a deep well of sadness and lost dreams hidden behind stern German pragmatism. But since the movie is through Pearl’s eyes, we see Ruth as the villain, something which I caught myself thinking and laughing, considering I’d seen X and know where the story is going.
And even though I did know—and most people watching will know—it never feels like a foregone conclusion. We weirdly do want the best for Pearl, despite the opening sequence where she cheerily kills a passing goose with a pitchfork. The movie’s horror comes not from a body count or jump scares but in the slow but steady deflation a young woman’s hope for a brighter future. What else could she do but go all Lizzie Borden?
Goth’s performance is this movie. She sells every single line and manages to be tragic and terrifying beneath the masque of bright, All-American pluck. West and Goth clearly get along swimmingly and they trust each other. So much so that many scenes, especially toward the end, are extended single takes of Goth unleashing her soul and being as emotionally vulnerable as a person can be on screen. It’s phenomenal! If Mia Goth isn’t at least in contention for some kind of acting award this year, between both X and Pearl, then there really is a problem.
Pearl is less a prequel and more a variation on a theme. It plays out so much more like a tragi-comedy with splashes of intense violence than X‘s ’70s-homage to slasher horror and pornography. Pearl also deals a lot with female sexuality, which is a big theme of X, naturally. The two films play wonderfully off each other. West continues to prove how malleable his style and tastes are while still playing generally in the horror realm. Two Ti West films in a single year is spoiling us but we’d love to see it happen again and again.