“You can’t make a slasher movie without a bunch of sequels,” Ti West explained around the time X premiered last spring, when he announced that he’d already shot a follow-up film in secret. X starred Mia Goth as final girl Maxine and also, under heavy make-up, the psycho-biddy villain Pearl. Pearl is a prequel film, with Goth playing the character as a young woman. (At Pearl’s TIFF premiere, West announced they will next make a proper sequel, catching up with Maxine in the mid-1980s.)
But what makes Pearl unique, in (as West admits) the sequel- and prequel-heavy world of slasher horror, is his wish to make his prequel in a completely different style. X riffed on the look and feel of its most direct influences: gnarly ‘70s indie horror (most specifically The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and grimy ‘70s porn. In Pearl, West is aping the aesthetics of another era altogether; the eye-popping colors, lush score, and ornate titles recall the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk, while the plotting winks at The Wizard of Oz, as well as every small town girl / star is born / farmer’s daughter story you’ve ever seen.
The time is 1918, ingeniously enough – it’s frankly shocking that no one thought to make a movie set during the previous pandemic yet – which allows for a handful of winking references and lines like “Hard to know who anybody is these days, with all the masks people are wearing.” Pearl’s husband Howard is off fighting in WWI, so she’s stuck in her farmhouse home with her thickly accented German mother (the excellent Tandi Wright) and her infirm father (Matthew Sunderland, doing some truly noteworthy non-verbal acting). But she sneaks off to “the pictures” whenever she can, and dreams of stardom. “One day, you’ll never see me again,” she promises her cow. “One day, the whole world’s gonna know my name.”
Don’t worry, though – in spite of its many other influences, Pearl is firmly anchored in the world of horror. Pearl’s relationship with her mother has heavy Carrie vibes, as mom bellows “Malevolence is festering inside you!” while lightning strikes, thunder cracks, rain pours, and Tyler Bates and Tim Williams’s witty score swells. The gags are grisly and frequently inventive, much like the predecessor, and while Pearl is a very different character than Maxine, they are similarly driven. “Please Lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever known,” she prays, “so I’ll make it far, far away from this place.”
Goth, who is also the co-writer and executive producer, is a charismatic and fearless performer. She goes for it, in scene after scene, and her open, expressive face and big, wide eyes often recall Shelley Duvall (the highest compliment); it’s a testament to her skills that this anti-heroine turn works so well. And those who’ve seen X have the advantage of knowing her fate – i.e. that, in spite of all of her talk, she doesn’t get away. She’s going to live her entire life in this farmhouse that she loathes so, which makes her weirdly sympathetic, even as she becomes a murderous monster.
And that’s the extra dimension that a filmmaker of West’s gifts brings into play. Neither X nor Pearl are the kind of slow burn/big payoff horror he made his name with in films like The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, but he hasn’t forgotten the lessons those pictures taught him about building a compelling genre narrative – namely, kills and effects are pricey, but character development is free. Goth gets plenty of crowd-pleasing slasher moments, but she most impresses in her pure acting moments: a long, searching, confessional monologue to her sister-in-law (which runs for several minutes without cuts), or the terrifying smile she holds through the end credits, showing her teeth even as tears fall down her cheeks. “I’M A STAR,” she bellows, at one key point, and Pearl may not be. But Mia Goth sure as hell is.
“Pearl” is in theaters Friday.