Review: ‘Pearl’ adds depth — and kills — to ‘X’ villain’s backstory

click to enlarge Review: ‘Pearl’ adds depth — and kills — to ‘X’ villain’s backstory
A24/Submitted

When Ti West’s “X” was released in theaters back in March, critics and audiences alike were largely impressed with the 1970s throwback slasher film, which was a sleazy little affair that saw a group of amateur adult filmmakers fall into the hands of a murderous elderly couple in rural Texas.

Mia Goth notably stars as the film’s lead, but it made for an interesting revelation that she also plays one of the film’s aging antagonists, Pearl, buried beneath layers of prosthetics and makeup. Those who stayed after the credits, however, were treated to an even greater surprise: that West had already shot a prequel exploring the character’s backstory in secret.

Written by West and Goth during a mandatory quarantine period before “X” went into production, the film titled “Pearl” was fast-tracked and shot back to back with its predecessor, a short teaser trailer tacked after its credits. And now, just six months later, the film is complete and playing in theaters.

It’s a kind of bold ambition and foresight that you have to respect, a new horror franchise greenlit and set in motion before the first installment’s completion. But how it stacks up against that first film, and if the story is worth exploring further, is key.

“Pearl” turns the clock back from 1979 to 1918, on the cusp of World War I’s end and during the Spanish flu pandemic. Pearl (Goth) lives on a farm with her strict mother (Tandi Wright), helping to take care of her unresponsive, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland).

With her husband Howard off serving in the war, Pearl meets a cinema projectionist (David Corenswet), who makes for a source of temptation and introduces her to the taboo that is early pornographic films. Longing for the glamor of being a star, Pearl hopes to woma dance competition at a local church against her mother’s wishes and break away from her isolated lifestyle.

The film immediately sets itself apart stylistically from “X” by looking to the Golden Age of Hollywood for inspiration. In contrast to the earlier film’s eerie, grindhouse aesthetic, “Pearl” employs vivid, Technicolor-inspired visuals, complete with bold, cartoonish title cards; wipe and iris transitions; and a melodramatic score by Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams that swells and swoons throughout. “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mary Poppins” have been cited as inspirations.

Despite the stylistic 180 between films, “Pearl” deals in many of the same themes. Subjects like religion and repression are present, as are its narrative reliance on cinema and porn, with the two films also containing parallel imagery and creating some direct continuity. Additionally, West continues to find inspiration in 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which served as a key reference point for “X,” with visual similarities here including a particularly creepy scarecrow and an unpleasant — to say the least — dinner arrangement.

Though the throwback visuals and editing tricks of Hollywood’s past run the risk of becoming a tired gimmick, the film quickly finds its footing as the character of Pearl is further developed and explored. With this origin story, West crafts a well-rounded, and equally disturbing, portrait of the aging, regretful antagonist presented in “X.” Something is clearly wrong with the starry-eyed Pearl from the start, beginning with the cold killing of a small animal, and as her troubles collide, it all sets in motion a chain of outbursts that leads the character to who she becomes in “X.”

The cast is solid throughout, but Goth is spellbinding in the part, with the film culminating in an extended monologue that solidifies the tragedy behind a character who could have been little more than a mere slasher.

Pure horror fans looking for a simple throwback gorefest may be disappointed in the result, but those who appreciate a slower-burn character study that takes the time to develop the motivations of its lead can appreciate what West is going for. It may not have the same fun classic needle drops and ensemble quality of “X,” but it makes for an interesting twist on what has potential to become one of horror’s next great franchises — one for which a third installment has already been announced.

“Pearl” is now playing in theaters.

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