Released: 16th September (United States) WHO THE HELL KNOWS!? (Australia)
Seen: 6th December
Earlier this year the film X was released to critical praise and a pretty impressive box office for a super low-budget horror film. It’s easily one of the films that will be used in future when discussing how good 2022 has been for the genre. At the end of screenings of X was something very interesting, a trailer for a prequel called Pearl that had already been shot and would be released at some point in 2022. This is pretty impressive because original films don’t tend to get the ability to film back-to-back movies before the first film has even been seen, it was a gamble and a half but it was certainly exciting to think about.
Pearl would end up being released on the 16th of September… in the United States. In Australia, where this very exhausted reviewer lives, it didn’t come out despite our copies of X absolutely coming with that trailer at the end of it. So, after waiting several months for a release, an import DVD had to be procured for this review because for some reason A24 (and a bunch of other very stupid studios) seem to not bother with a worldwide release when it is easier than ever to do that. I tell you this to explain that this was harder to track down than it should’ve been… but it was absolutely worth the trouble.
Pearl takes us back to 1918 and the same old farm that was featured in X, a farm that’s inhabited by a much younger Pearl (Mia Goth), along with her hard-working German immigrant mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and infirm father (Matthew Sunderland). Ruth and Pearl have to do all the work, taking care of the farm and the paralyzed patriarch of the family but Pearl longs for something more. On her trips into town to do the minimal grocery shopping they need (while masked up since there is an Influenza pandemic going on) Pearl has taken to stopping by the cinema to see a picture, catching the eye of the projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages Pearl to live her dream.
Pearl’s dream? Only to be a dancer on the big screen, to be a star and get away from the farm that has kept her weighed down. Unfortunately, her plans don’t seem to work and getting away from the farm is harder than she thought it would be… that’s OK, sometimes the easiest way to get away is to murder everyone holding you back, maybe that’s what Pearl needs to do (it’s what she does, Pearl does so much murder!).
While X was a loving parody of 80s horror and pornography, Pearl is more interested in the golden age of cinema with particular emphasis on early stag films and the glorious technicolour of films like Wizard of Oz, indeed this film even contains a scene that can basically be interpreted as Dorothy being fucked by the Scarecrow because this franchise is still devoted to combining its influences in strange and shocking ways. That vivid colouring makes the film feel so appropriate for the time period while also putting a bright joyful facade over Pearl’s pain. Everything about the film is heightened along with that colour palette, from the twisted darker moments to the absolutely insane performance holding everything together.
That insane performance being Mia Goth who might’ve been good in X but here is where she absolutely shines. Every second of the film is hers, it’s a tour-de-force performance that fits the tone of the period of film being referenced. It’s over the top at points, particularly in some of the more iconic moments (there’s a reason the “I’m a star” sound has done the rounds of internet meme culture) but it all works with the tone of the film. What’s amazing is that Pearl is an incredibly sympathetic character, you can’t help but root for her on some level even as she’s doing some truly horrific things.
To make the more horrific elements of the film stand out, it really helps that the film almost completely commits to that Golden Age of Hollywood vibe. It borrows classic visuals and aesthetics and slowly lets the audience get used to things before it introduces the elements of nudity and violence which are made all the more confronting because, up until they’re brought in, the film looks like something that could’ve passed through the old Hayes code without much of a hassle but once they open those floodgates it has a lot of fun with the horrific violence (that might be made less horrific thanks to the blood being an impossibly bright red).
The brilliance of Pearl is that it’s not only a character study, letting us in on the life of this woman we only knew a little of before, but it’s a fully standalone film that doesn’t require you to see X to enjoy it. Sure it wouldn’t hurt you to see X first, there are certainly a few references and moments that will have you smiling a little bit (such as a repeat of the opening shot, this time in glorious technicolour) but no moments that require that knowledge.
Pearl is another glorious entry into the X franchise, which now sits at two undeniable classics of the slasher genre. It’s dark, twisted, emotional and incredibly fun with an all-time iconic performance by Mia Goth and some of the most beautiful visuals seen in a slasher film. Once again Ti West has just hit it out of the park, presenting something that’s exciting and new while still honouring cinema history. Now we just have to wait patiently for the third film, MaXXXine… hopefully this time I won’t have to import a DVD to get hold of that one.