I remember the utter shock I experienced while in the theater watching “X,” so when I found out there was going to be a prequel, I eagerly signed myself up for another 90-plus minutes of appalling yet alluring gruesomeness. I don’t regret it.
“Pearl” takes the audience back to 1918, when Pearl (Mia Goth, “X”) and her German immigrant parents live on a farm in Texas. She longs for stardom as a dancer in Hollywood movies and grows dissatisfied with her rural life of shucking corn and milking cows. Her husband, Howard (David Corenswet, “Affairs of State”), was supposed to be her ticket out of this unsatisfactory life, but he left her stranded after leaving to fight in World War I. Pearl grows impatient and seemingly more disturbed as the days pass. As one would expect in a horror film, that’s when the blood and guts start to spill.
Ti West’s (“The Innkeepers”) new release is Pearl’s villain origin story, and it’s abundantly satisfying. In “X,” Pearl appears as a harmless elderly woman until she gets a hold of a pitchfork, her signature murder weapon. From there, it is natural to question her compulsion to kill. “Pearl” seeks to satisfy that curiosity, and Goth gives an undeniably strong performance as young Pearl. She’s a sweet farm girl and frightening pitchfork murderer all in one, and her menacing grin will continue to haunt me for at least a couple of weeks.
What makes Goth’s performance even more impressive is her relationship to previous characters played in “X.” The first film featured Goth as both Maxine, the young, beautiful adult film actress, and Pearl, the elderly, unhappy killer. Although Goth was unrecognizable as elderly Pearl in “X,” she did not fail to make her force known. Her performance as both characters displays their similarities — both Pearl and Maxine, whether past or present, have always wanted to escape the constraints that keep them from living their dream as Hollywood stars. There is this drive that ties them together, a bond symbolized by Goth’s dual role. This double casting evokes more meaningful themes like the power of ambition and escape in ways that traditional slasher films typically fail.
“Pearl” is beautifully shot, especially for a movie that shows some non-beautiful events. It begins with Pearl looking at herself in the mirror while the credits roll silent-movie style. Everything about the film is artistically driven — the dramatic Hollywood music, the shadows as Pearl dances and imagines herself as a star, the red of her dress matching the barn in her backyard. It’s a visual masterpiece, though I found it hard to take my eyes off Pearl: the way she walked, her changing facial expressions and her body language. Pearl longed to be a star, and in portraying her, Goth actually became one.
There’s also something relatable about “Pearl,” both the film and the character. Her dream is unrealistic, especially for a young girl trapped on a farm with her parents during World War I. “Pearl” addresses how this ambition and drive can be harmful if taken too far. Sure, most people don’t go on a murder spree when they don’t reach their dreams, but there’s an identifiable fear of failure that “Pearl” touches on in horror movie style. “Pearl” is not a horror movie about ghosts or guys in masks. It’s about a young girl who wants to achieve her goals so badly that she lets them control her. It’s frightening because it’s real.
With the excitement surrounding “Pearl” still alive, West has announced a third installment to the series called “MaXXXine,” which will again follow Goth as Maxine from “X” in her search for stardom in ’80s Los Angeles. Considering the way “X” and “Pearl” have pleasantly spooked me, I have high hopes for “MaXXXine.” The series stemming from “X” is shaping up to be my new favorite horror trilogy, and I can’t wait to sign myself up for a third round of terrifying, engaging horror.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at email@example.com.