Regular horror genre fans aren’t quite ready for Ti West’s “Pearl,” the origin tale to the breakout spring feature, “X.”
If you blinked and missed it back in March, the 70s set film took place on a deserted ranch in deep Texas, where a group of young and ambitious porn industry filmmakers, producers, and stars gathered to make “a movie.” Little did they know the ranch house and property belonged to the kind of old couple that shouldn’t be underestimated. The young folks aren’t that nice to the elderly couple, and chaos ensues.
What “Pearl” sheds a light on is how the elder woman of the duo became a sick, twisted, and cold-blooded murderer that “X” viewers got to witness. It’s a rare occasion at the movies where you get an entry film one month, and six months later another tale from that world is released. When you make slasher films for cheap, you can do that.
But West isn’t just here to scare you, or make one cover their eyes during certain scenes. He wants to scratch and claw at society’s norms and tendencies, especially when it comes to a clash of cultures. While “X” took place 50 years ago, “Pearl” jumps back to 1918-19, when the Spanish flu pandemic upended an already fracturing society, leading to paranoia and placing nervous families in a vice grip.
Young Pearl (the amazing Mia Goth) is trapped in her farm house, a building that her exasperatingly strict mother makes seem like a fortress. Feeling like a prisoner in her own home-a place that wreaks of impending death with her sick father living out the rest of his days in misery-Pearl begins to spar with her dear mom (Tandi Wright, making Kathy Bates in “Misery” seem soft). What starts as the normal young girl tantrums and temptations (a flirt and fling with bohemian projectionist David Corenswet) quickly gets bloodier and bloodier.
Pearl badly wants to break out of this flu-enabled prison, and sees an upcoming dance competition as the opportunity that has been alluding her. But dear old mom thinks that’s a big risk and something that would only bring more tragedy to the house. What Wright’s Ruth doesn’t understand is that locking in 2020 folks into their homes may result in arguing and isolation; messing with Pearl is like asking for a pitchfork through the chest… or head.
Goth makes this movie work, just like she powered “X” with her dual performances (she plays a young porn star AND a much older Pearl). What her eyes don’t do to you, the expressions and body certainly pick up the slack. Just like she did in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” she combines a perverted spookiness with a deep, dark desire to be seen and appreciated in our anti-hero here. While we fear Pearl and hope she doesn’t kill every single cast member, we also kind of want to see it play out. She makes the devious and demented seem attractive and very watchable. Come for the blood, but stay for the Goth.
West wisely constructs this story around the last severe pandemic breakout that strangled the economy and set everyone’s worst fears on the table, and that makes the freaky end result resonate a little deeper than the average horror entry. It’s a genre that repeats itself or dances around the same touchy subjects, like the dark, demons, or some idea of supernatural beings. Here, it’s just a scorned young woman unleashing rage and blood all around. Yeah, she’s fucked up in the head and doesn’t think the world has been kind to her, but it’s closer to reality than anyone would like to realize.
“Pearl” isn’t your standard horror film, and it’s better for it. While some filmmakers could ease their foot off the pedal for their second round, West keeps his engaged to the floor here. Instead of going diet with this feature, he doubles down on the twisted pleasures of “X,” another film that didn’t leave much to the imagination when it came to “WHO” would die, but made their demise original and disgusting in its own right.
It’s not for everybody, and most likely will not help initiate any newcomers to the genre. But it is exactly what it was going for and a fine origin tale, a prized spot that gets you respect from the old school film lovers and puts you on a “what are they doing next” list for modern day movie consumers. Wherever Ti West is headed next, I want to go too.
Pearl was distributed by A24 and is only available in theaters for the time being, but you can find X on Amazon Prime for $5.