1918, decades before an ill-fated attempt to film a farmer’s daughter-themed porno there was Pearl.
In Texas, at the height of the Spanish flu, Pearl (Mia Goth) lives the simple life of a farm girl. Isolated from society, she tends to her catatonic father (Matthew Sunderland), a victim of the pandemic, while her domineering mother (Tandi Wright) belittles her and her dreams.
Pearl wishes for nothing more than to be a dancer. She reads letters from her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) fighting in The Great War and Europe sounds more beautiful than anything she can imagine. Unfortunately, the closest she can manage now is dancing in the barn for her animals and watching moving pictures at the theatre in town.
Growing psychopathic thoughts begin to plague Pearl’s mind. Her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) gives Pearl the great news that their local church is auditioning girls for a travelling dance troupe. Now Pearl finally has a purpose. But what will come first? The audition or a total violent breakdown of her sanity?
What began as a simple backstory for Mia Goth’s character in X (2022), quickly developed into a film of its own. Director Ti West and Goth collaborated on the script for Pearl while in lockdown prior to filming X in New Zealand. Studio A24 green-lit this prequel and the 2 projects were filmed back-to-back.
This streamlined production allowed Pearl to retain many of the same sets and creative leads, giving this movie a familiar feel but allowing for interesting new takes as well. Returning is cinematographer Eliot Rockett who was instrumental in recreating the 70s grindhouse-movie vibe of X. Here, instead of run-down and lifeless, everything is full of colour, recreating the vibrant, magical technicolour of films like The Wizard of Oz.
Similarly, composer Tyler Bates returns this time accompanied by Tim Williams. While the last film had a score evoking the aesthetic of 70s arthouse horror films, Pearl is a very different beast. Music is crucially important to Pearl as a character. She aspires to be a chorus line girl with multiple dance and musicals numbers being an outlet for her emotions.
What blew me away the most in Pearl was its lead performance by Goth. I really enjoyed X and Goth’s dual performances as both the heroine Maxine and an elderly Pearl were fascinating. At its heart though, X was a fun gory slasher with some interesting ideas. Pearl is surprisingly much more than just a prequel to a slasher film. It is a strong character driven story of one woman’s decent into madness, reaching heights few horror films do.
Much of this comes from Goth’s incredible portrayal which as co-writer she has been able to emphasise. Throughout the film she goes through a range of emotions from joy to horror, to rage. As we’re introduced to Pearl, she has already started down a dark path. The innocent farm girl with stars in her eyes is chipped away little by little until all that is left are raw nerves. Her climactic dialogue where she explores how much she has changed is a highlight of the film, and in a single 5-minute shot Mia Goth gives what I consider to be an Oscar-worthy monologue.
Ti West and Mia Goth have created something I never expected to see in a prequel to X, and I love it. A film which is much lighter on gore but much heavier on character. To be fair, this could make Pearl disappointing to some horror movie fans who go in simply looking for a high body count. However, with an intriguing story built around an impeccable lead performance by Goth, Pearl is without a doubt an overall superior film to its predecessor.
Pearl is in cinemas from March 16.