As a film fan, film studies lecturer and reviewer, it is not very often that I turn to the person next to me in the cinema (my son on this occasion) and say, “That was one of the best films I have ever seen,” but this did happen just last night. The cold morning air may have dampened my excitement, but I can still say, hand on heart, that Ti West’s prequel to last year’s X, Pearl (A24), is one of the finest horror films in many a year.
The monster of X, the wrinkled hag, who we last saw chopping and stabbing her way through the cast and crew of a 1979 porno shoot who happened to be using her farm as a location, clearly had an axe to grind (pun very much intended). Pearl, set in 1918, takes a slowly paced journey through the killer’s youth to find out why she hates these ’70s young folk so much.
Living in the same farmhouse as X during a pandemic (which gives the film an eerie, relatable setting), we meet her domineering mother and disabled father who do nothing to help her desire to become a travelling dancer. Only the projectionist (David Corenswet) at the local fleapit and her equally ambitious sister-in-law, Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), offer any encouragement. Pearl’s mental health is on a downward spiral, possibly due to her isolated existence and the trauma of having a husband abroad fighting in the war. We see him in a brief but unforgettable explosive sequence that recalls the animated man in Jane Campion’s The Piano.
As Pearl’s anxieties rise and her ambitions to be a star take centre stage, the bodies begin to pile up, but West keeps us waiting until the tension is almost unbearable.
Pearl is once again played by the ridiculously talented Mia Goth, who also shares co-writing credits with West.
Whilst the storyline may not be ground-breaking, although it wipes the floor with Scream VI, viewed between naps the previous night, West uses a series of tropes and references to other classic movies to make this an absolute must-see.
Whereas X was shot very much in the style of Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, remember the cow that escaped the slaughterhouse sequence at the start (inspired, and then some), Pearl presents a great curveball by taking on the look and feel of The Wizard of Oz. Wide-eyed Mia Goth does her very best Dorothy stare throughout and maxes it in the final minutes.
You will never see Dorothy meeting the Scarecrow for the very first time again without recalling the cheeky parody in the cornfield of Pearl’s farm. The opening shot of the barn doors opening onto a technicolour vista of farmland takes Dorothy’s first steps into Oz to extremes.
Other classic movies are referenced throughout as Pearl becomes a homage to iconic horror. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is further worshipped alongside Psycho, Axe, Carrie, The Pig Keepers Daughter (Lest we forget), and the many roughie movies of Russ Meyer.
Where Ti West stands apart from other modern horror directors is in his fearless approach to injecting surrealism when he perhaps should be upping the pace, but it works.
The audition in the local church hall should be pedestrian, but it is actually one of the high points of the film. His decision to suddenly split the screen into a bizarre mirror effect at the most unlikely moment adds to the shock factor and is frankly jaw-dropping.
That the most memorable scene in the film is a monologue delivered by Pearl clocking in at a 5-minute continuous shot that says as much about Goth’s acting as Ti’s bravery.
Pearl is certainly a Marmite film, as US reviews have shown, but if you “get it,” you’ll not regret it.
Director: Ti West
Writer: Ti West, Mia Goth
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell
Production Company: Little Lamb, Mad Solar Productions
Distributed by: A24 (United States), Universal Pictures (International)
Release Date: September 3, 2022 (Venice), September 16, 2022 (United States)
Run Time: 102 minutes