As one of those folks who eat, sleep, and breathe all things horror, I get all kinds of giddy when a film comes along that just blows the doors off everyone’s personal haunted house. It’s even cooler when said film continues a new franchise (or at the very least, a trilogy) that’s new and fresh without a hint of remake in sight. That’s kind of rare nowadays.
Pearl is the second in the series. It’s also a prequel to X, set sixty years previous in 1918. Pearl (Mia Goth; Suspiria, X) lives an isolated and threadbare life on the farm with her highly devout mother and invalid, wheelchair-bound father while her husband, Howard (Alistair Sewell; The Power of the Dog), is in France fighting the Germans. It’s nearly unbearable for Pearl, who daydreams endlessly of being a dancer in the follies. She even takes the change leftover from her father’s medicine so she can go to “the pictures”, befriending the dashing projectionist (David Corenswet; We Own This City) and further igniting her desire to get far away from the farm. She isn’t your average daydreaming farm girl, though—something is quite wrong with Pearl, as her mother and father (along with a few others) are about to find out. When her sister-in-law, Mitzi (newcomer Emma Jenkins-Purro in her feature film debut) tells her about an audition for a traveling dance troupe, Pearl sees her way out…and God help anyone who tries to stop her.
Pearl is a joy to soak in, chock full of wonderful shots like the cornfield panoramas with Pearl biking along evoking memories of Miss Gulch powering ahead on her bicycle or the depressing blackness of a family dinner. The high grain, ‘70s aesthetic is toned down and instead gets grounded in the hardscrabble life of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The timeliness and relevancy to the world we live in today (those damn masks!) gets you fully into the world Pearl is living in, and that’s a big part of its charm.
As a period piece, Pearl also hits on all cylinders. Both the costume design and the set design highlight just how damn oppressive that farm is. You can feel the bleakness, and that humanizes the monster that is Pearl. She’s not pure evil and that’s important. Director Ti West said it best in the Q&A after the film: “I’m not going to vouch for Pearl, but I get it.”
Pearl isn’t a splatterfest by any stretch of the imagination, but it isn’t exactly taking it easy on you, either. The kills are made all the more effective because of who the victims are but also because of the logic and pure belief that Pearl has in herself. Each one comes with just the right amount of discomfort, in some cases even letting your mind fill in the blanks as the action happens offscreen. One of the more disturbing scenes finds Pearl in the middle of all that corn doing some mildly unspeakable things to a freakishly lifelike scarecrow. It will be burned onto your memory banks. I assure you.
Given that this is a prequel to the razor-sharp X and was filmed back-to-back, you expect the black humor. And that black humor delivers in spades. The theater was full of timely laughter, most of it of the nervous, what am I watching variety. The beauty of Pearl is you’re taken with empathy for this absolutely bonkers young woman who does unspeakable things and continues to do so for decades. You wouldn’t have seen that coming after seeing what she does to that porn crew in 1978, but Ti West pulls it off with aplomb. It doesn’t hurt that he has a lead actress turning in what will prove to be a defining early role in her career.
Mia Goth is an outright revelation as Pearl. Whether she is dancing or killing, she’s equal parts vulnerable, childish, sweet, hilarious, and utterly terrifying. The entirety of the old-fashioned credits feature a two-minute-long single-take shot of Goth holding the most unhinged close-up smile you’ll ever see on film, and it caps off the movie…especially when paired with another single-take monologue that rivals any confession I’ve ever seen. I detest the cliché “powerhouse performance”; instead, what Goth delivers in Pearl is a performance worthy of a final boss. Horror is all too often snubbed at the awards shows, but Mia Goth deserves some hardware for Pearl. The outcry for her to win some awards will be as loud, if not louder, than the continued injustice of the snubbing of Toni Collette for Hereditary. Yeah, I said it.
Alright, I’m going to get off my soapbox now.
Pearl isn’t better than X; instead, it stands shoulder to shoulder in much the same way that the wonderful films in the Fear Street series do. With Maxxxine now on the horizon, we can go ahead and officially get geeked for a very dirty finale. It’s going to be a trilogy that folks in Hollywood will look back on when Mia Goth is winning Oscar gold down the road and say, “Have you seen her in those X-rated horror movies, though?! Can you believe it?”
Yes, we can believe it. The best horror ages like fine wine, and Pearl is going to be known as a damn good year.