What a treat it is to get a prequel to this year’s horror hit X so soon. Director Ti West pushed forward with a new horror saga and apparently wrote up this screenplay in two weeks while X was getting ready for production. For being written in such a short time, West’s Pearl manages to be more than just a bonus film that could’ve been attached to the Bluray as a special feature.
Mia Goth returns to the role of Pearl for this film but not in the old-woman makeup she had for X. She plays a younger version of the character set in 1918 Texas. Amid the Spanish flu and World War I, farm life is dreadfully dull for Pearl who dreams of being in movies. Those dreams seem far away when her husband is serving overseas and she is cared for by her strict mother and her catatonic father.
In the same way that X tried to evoke the 1970s aesthetic in which it was set, Pearl also goes for a Golden Era Hollywood feel. It’s shot in a picturesque format of vivid colors and stellar long shots, complete with a whimsically classical score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams. All of this makes for a great juxtaposition of Pearl’s madness. Her separation leads to such surreal moments as killing animals and making love to a scarecrow.
The cautionary tale of Pearl is unique in how dreams and desires consume her life. She has conditioned herself to dream bigger and refuses to accept the life of her shrill mother. This leads to a romantic encounter with a charming projectionist (David Corenswet). They share a love for movies and he gives her a taste of an erotic film, showcasing how reality will become more vocal in entertainment. It’s an aspect that fascinates and terrifies Pearl, especially when realizing her only friend Ruth (Tandi Wright) is the competition, bound for glory entirely by her looks.
Goth’s performance is what really makes this film a dark delight. She goes from playing a seemingly innocent girl to one who is festering with frustrations at an unjust world. What is sure to be a major highlight is Goth’s brilliant monologue where she comes clean in a sopping mess of sadness and rage. It’s a brilliant scene that is capped off brilliantly with Pearl making her way out of the house to hunt down her competition and chop her up with an ax.
This is the best kind of prequel in that it doesn’t require foreknowledge of X. It exists entirely as its own movie, setting itself apart in style and characters, thanks to the major time difference. There are some small hints of what leads into X (the gator, the basement, Pearl’s problems), but never a moment that will make those coming cold scratch their head.
What the film does share in common with its predecessor is its brutality. There’s plenty of seared flesh, chopped body parts, and stabbings carried out by Pearl. The violence is perhaps more shocking here because it’s beautifully juxtaposed with the throwback nature of classic Hollywood staging. We expect some gore in X since it’s drawing from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. By the time the film gets its kaleidoscopic sequence of Pearl chopping off a human head and tossing it to a hungry gator, the film becomes more than just a classic cinema homage with a bloody coat or even a pre-code era love letter. It’s an engrossing horror with Goth at the wheel of this surreal journey for revenge.
Combining old cinema styles and vicious horror, Pearl is a real treat of a picture that exists as more than the prequel to X. The film certainly sets its sights lower considering that X harbored a hefty dose of many themes. Pearl feels more contained centering entirely around its central character and her story. But, hey, why wouldn’t it? Goth carries this film so well that it’s no surprise she co-wrote the picture. Aside from being a solid film about desires unmet, it’s just plain cool to see Goth in a dress wielding an ax, turning into a terrifyingly violent force.