Ti West’s PEARL Puts a Warped Spin on THE WIZARD OF OZ

Pearl is a new horror gem—likely to become a horror classic—that digs into its titular character (Mia Goth) and her desperate need to escape farm life. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Ti West’s follow up to X is basically a warped version of The Wizard of Oz that answers how Dorothy would fare if she never went to Oz. What happens when the lesson learned through adventure and fantasy is instead through anguish, disappointment, and the mundane? Arguably, the film has a tin man, lion, scarecrow, wicked witch, and even another Dorothy that are struck down by Pearl waking up from her fantasy.  

Pearl movie trailer image

We initially see a brief conflict between Pearl and her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright). Pearl soon goes outside and there’s vibrant music reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz. As the movie progresses, Ruth is hellbent on killing her daughter’s spirit. From forcing her to care for her father, to never allowing her to enjoy herself, Ruth is a miserable thorn in Pearl’s side. This is much like the wicked witch is towards Dorothy, even though Ruth plays a duel role as an evil version of Auntie Em. As emotions swell to a crescendo, Pearl and Ruth wind up in a physical altercation, and Ruth’s dress catches fire. Her death is accidental, similar to Dorothy accidentally dropping a house on a witch.

The Tin Man is made of metal or tin. The Projectionist (David Corenswet) job is playing films from canisters made of tin. Like the Tin Man himself, the Projectionist is charming and sophisticated. He appears worldly, just like the character Tin Man does as he sings “If I Only Had A Heart.” Both the Tin Man and the Projectionist seem full of life; however, they feel hollow inside due to something missing. Interestingly, this Pearl character also reflects another famous The Wizard of Oz character: the Scarecrow.

Pearl (Mia Goth) watches an early dirty movie in the prequel to X.

The Scarecrow in this story is a mix. After meeting the Projectionist, Pearl rides her bike back home. Losing the film clip he gave her, Pearl moves through a field to find it, and she sees a scarecrow perched aloft. Envisioning the Projectionist’s handsome features on the scarecrow, Pearl makes out with him… and more. Later in the film, Pearl stabs the Projectionist with a pitchfork after realizing he doesn’t love her. It’s an interesting tool of choice considering pitchforks are used to pitch hay, which is what scarecrows are made of. The Wizard of Oz likenesses truly run rampant throughout Pearl.

Now, Pearl’s father (Matthew Sunderland) resembles the Cowardly Lion. Though expressionless at the beginning of Pearl, he comes to embody one singular emotion: fear. He is the first one Pearl considers killing when she wheels him to their bayou. She tells him how much she loves him and fears what will become of him if she leaves the farm. In her mind, this is a mercy killing. After that, whenever Pearl’s father appears onscreen, his eyes hold terror. Like the Cowardly Lion, he feels fear, but unlike this lion, he does not lack courage. His disability means he cannot speak or move, so he is at the mercy of those around him. 

side by side photo of Pearl hugging a scarecrow and wizard of oz dorothy gale being near scarecrow
Warner Bros/A24

Pearl’s sister-in-law Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro) also wants to dance, and agrees to audition with Pearl for a church dance group. The collective will travel to different towns for performances. Misty is closer to the character of Dorothy than Pearl, despite Pearl’s delusions. Her attire—from her dress to shoes—is strikingly similar to Dorothy Gale’s style. Their differences become more glaring when she and Pearl talk after the auditions following Pearl’s monologue.

Pearl’s attire of long dresses and richer colors looks like wicked witch wear. After all, her mom is a wicked witch, and the two evil witches in The Wizard of Oz film are related. And what does Pearl, the second wicked witch, do? Kill. When Pearl, angry because she thinks Misty got the role and not her, follows Misty out and grabs the ax, Pearl embraces the part of the wicked witch and murders Misty, a.k.a. Dorothy.  

Pearl’s character and depiction in the film—believing she is Dorothy when she is the witch—gives credence to author Cassandra Clare’s phrase that “no one is ever the villain in their own story.” Pearl thought she was Dorothy, understandable given Ruth’s treatment, but in the end, she is another villain. No one successfully acquires the parts their counterparts in the The Wizard of Oz attain. Pearl makes sure of that and, in the end, damns herself. 

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