[review by JA Kerswell]
With PEARL, Ti West and Mia Goth explore the backstory of the geriatric killer from the same years' X. Whilst the earlier film was also a deliciously nasty little shocker; with the prequel West has thrown off some of the more obvious nods to Tobe Hooper. The result is a daringly original and pleasingly eccentric film bathed in the technicolour and melodrama of old Hollywood. Yet, it still manages to satisfy as a gruesome psycho-killer-thriller shot through with jet black comedy.
|Mia Goth gives forty whacks in PEARL, Ti West's prequel to X.|
In X, the character of PEARL was seemingly ready for her grave. A ghost of an old lady, whose lust for sex and bloodshed is reignited by the arrival of a group of adult film makers on her remote Texas property. That was 1979. The prequel takes us back to 1918 to witness the birth of a monster that is far more nuanced and complicated than many you'll see in the subgenre.
Mia Goth - who not only played the lone survivor of the 1979 'X Massacre', but also the killer in old age make-up - returns here as the young Pearl. Pining for her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell), who is off fighting in the War in Europe, she toils in a lonely existence on her German immigrant parent's farm. She tires of caring for her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) and resents the joyless drudgery that her mother (Tandi Wright) tells her is the only option for her life. Pearl dreams of a brighter future as a chorus girl, and will head to town any chance she can get to go to the movies. She pins her hopes on escaping the farm life on upcoming dance auditions that are due to take place at the local church. Her dreams are bolstered by encouraging words by her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) and a handsome young projectionist at the cinema (David Corenswet). These dreams are nearly dashed when her mother forbids her to take part, which results in fatal accident that partly frees her from the binds of family life. She will let nothing get in the way of fame. She pleads at prayer time: "Please Lord. Make me the biggest star the world has ever known." However, Pearl does not take rejection or failure well. So, when things don't tally to the fantasy she has in her head she reaches for the nearest pitchfork or axe to work through her anger with forty whacks ...
|PEARL features plenty of surreal imagery mirroring the mental collapse of Pearl.|
As with X, Ti West does not give his audience all the answers. In that film it is left to interpretation as to why Mia Goth played both killer and ostensible Final Girl - and what, if anything, the director was saying about sex and specifically the adult industry. PEARL ties the films together as we see the young woman's descent into madness, but we aren't given a clear answer why. Pearl's character seems conflicted. She sometimes regrets her actions, but admits to enjoying killing. She starts with small farm animals - and kills a goose (off camera) with a pitchfork - and feeds him to the crocodile that lives in the near by lake. She names the croc 'Theda'- after Theda Bara the silent movie actress who was known at the time as The Vamp (and whose films are shown playing at the cinema Pearl frequents). Her sense of isolation is exacerbated by her mother telling her that - because of the war - Germans are hated and she should not draw attention to herself. Her mother alludes to something dark inside Pearl and tells her people will come to fear her. Is her lust for killing nature or nuture? Again, West leaves that up to our own interpretation.
The film also neatly ties the aspects of sex and voyeurism together. Pearl is attracted to the movies and the young projectionist, who she sleeps with him in the projection booth. He shows her a 'stag loop' that he picked up in France and tells her she could go to Europe and make similar 'dirty movies' - which only fuels her fantasy world. And, in one of the film's most eccentric moments, she takes a scarecrow from his pole to dance around the cornfield before dry humping it on the ground.
Mia Goth gives a remarkable performance as Pearl. Veering from the youthful exuberance of Disney's Snow White (she talks and blows kisses to the farm animals when she's not killing them!) to a dead-eyed Lizzie Borden complete with axe and bloody bodily dismemberment. Her performance brilliantly captures the turmoil inside; as she slowly looses a battle with her inner demons.
|If the Academy gave awards to horror movies, Mia Goth would clean the board.|
Curiously, West conjurs a classic Hollywood look to the film that hadn't happened by 1918. The film has a lush orchestral score and titles that call to mind GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). PEARL utilises hyper saturation of techicolour that is more reminiscent of the movie melodramas of Douglas Sirk in the 1950s. Although colour movies had been around since the turn of the century, it wasn't until 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ that kickstarted the technicolour boom - a film, of course, that features another farm girl who yearns for adventure. Albeit one with less of a bodycount. As ever, West is oblique about the reasoning for this. Perhaps the film is a flashback of the elderly Pearl to a missed future had she escaped the drudgery of farm life and is told through a Golden Age of Hollywood prism of the preceding decades. The fact that the upcoming sequel MAXXXINE (2023) takes places in 1985 Hollywood suggests that might be the case if the two characters are somehow interlinked.
Whilst X was arguably a little too self-consciously in debt to the 70s rural shockers of Tobe Hooper, West and Goth (who co-wrote the film) have as free reign as possible to go full gonzo with PEARL. And go full gonzo they certainly do. Whilst, as ever, with Ti West's films, patience is a virtue for the viewer. However, that patience is richly rewarded with a visually rich, perversely playful and dementedly gruesome gem of a movie - all underpinned by Goth's remarkable performance. If the Academy Awards weren't so snobby about horror movies, she'd richly deserve a nomination.
female: 3 / male: 4
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