Director Ti West makes a triumphant return to the horror genre with his two most recent films, X and Pearl, released only six months apart. Pearl, which hit theaters in September, acts as a prequel to its predecessor and an origin story for the titular lead character.
X, released in March, follows a group of adult filmmakers who travel to a farmhouse in rural Texas to shoot a pornographic film. Among the group is wide-eyed newbie Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), eager to prove her star power and make it to the big screen. As they begin filming, they notice strange behavior exhibited by the farmhouse hosts, elderly couple Pearl (Mia Goth again, but with SFX makeup) and Howard (Stephen Ure). Night falls, people disappear, and bloodshed ensues.
In X, West pays homage to the nostalgic ‘70s slashers, but what makes the film stand out as an individual piece is his commitment to atmospheric cinematography and intricate set design. The film’s styling drips of Southern ‘70s Americana. There are frequent wide shots of dusty country landscapes and omnipresent hints of red and blue, matching the pigment on Maxine’s eyelids and Bobby-Lyne’s flared dress. The subdued nature of the rural setting contrasts with bits of intensely carnal imagery, which together, create a primal sense of dread—unsettling and hungry.
The film explores the relationship between sex and horror during the late ‘70s, a time in which the burgeoning pornographic film industry stood in stark ideological contrast to the largely conservative, religious American South. Sex—and proximity to sexuality—is both the catalyst for the crew’s appearance on the farmhouse and also the villain’s motives. As expressed by Bobby-Lyne, “We turn people on—that’s what scares them.” Tangential to sex appeal is the idea of youth and the existential loss incurred with aging, particularly as a woman. In this way, Maxine and Pearl act as wretched mirrors of one another. The former is infused with childlike wonder and recklessness, swimming carefree in alligator-infested waters. The latter, in contrast, haunts a decrepit house full of rotting food.
There is a desperate sense of longing in the air when Pearl appears on screen. As she smears pigment onto her wrinkled lids and brushes through the few hairs left on her head, we begin to pity this tragic character. This decision proves to be a double-edged sword, because though Pearl’s empathetic framing sets the stage for the prequel, it also frequently robs the film of its ability to create meaningful intrigue because Pearl is no longer frightening. Instead, we are left with half-baked jump scares that, while fun in the moment, don’t leave a lasting impression.
In Pearl, Mia Goth reclaims her role as the titular character, as well as collecting a co-writing credit along the way. The film takes place during the tail end of World War I, several decades before X. Pearl is a young woman trapped in her farmhouse home, longing for stardom and sexual freedom. Stifled by her religious mother (Tandi Wright) and incapacitated father (Matthew Sunderland), Pearl’s resentment grows into a disturbing knack for violence.
Although Pearl contains occasional references to its predecessor, it feels entirely different. The majority of scares in X occur in the dark, following traditional bump-in-the-night horror conventions. Meanwhile, much of Pearl’s horror occurs in broad daylight. The film’s color grading is uniquely saturated—primary colors that pop out in almost cartoonish fashion. Additionally, the gore in Pearl is more sparsely spread, placing a greater emphasis on writing and dialogue, rather than action-packed scares. By presenting two dramatically different tones side-by-side, the audience receives a well-rounded storytelling experience: both the classic horror rollercoaster of X, and the contemplative meditation of Pearl. X is made better and more satisfying because of Pearl, filling in the gaps of lackluster character development that plagued the first film.
Mia Goth gives arguably her best performance to date in Pearl. She fully embraces the unbridled insanity and delusion of her character, and along with an excellent script, the effect is striking. There is an unforgettable closing credits scene in which Goth stares directly into the camera for nearly a minute with an unhinged grin and tears streaming down her cheeks. Even in the last moments of the film, Pearl only wishes to be seen.
The ultimate tragedy of Pearl is that we, as the audience, know how her story ends [SPOILER]. We know that she will never escape the farmhouse, that she will spend her whole life longing for something greater than her mother’s life but then die inside the farmhouse walls just like her. And therein lies the true horror of these two films: Pearl’s greatest enemy is the self-fulfilling prophecy of womanhood, the demons passed down among generations of girls in her family, and the seemingly inevitable nature of it all.
A few days before the release of Pearl, A24 dropped the teaser trailer for MaXXXine, the third installation of the film trilogy that will be a direct sequel to X. This development solidifies A24’s first ever horror franchise and first ever trilogy, a surprising move for the independent film studio that generally strays away from mainstream practices. But if we are to expect a continuation of the slasher genre’s fun and searing social commentary present in the previous two films, I look forward to what West has in store.
Sabrina Mei is a sophomore in the MSB majoring in Finance and minoring in Film & Media Studies. She is one of the Reviews Editors for the INDY.