It’s 1918, and the elderly woman that terrorised the screaming youths of X is still a tender young thing, stuck on her parents’ farm and dreaming of a life of stardom in faraway Hollywood. How far removed from that wizened psychotic killer this cherubic vision now stands. But as the next 100 or so minutes unfolds, the stars in Pearl’s eyes are tipped with blood.
Last year’s X was something of a surprise hit: a tribute to the nasty, trashy pre-Halloween American horror cinema typified by the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left, Ti West’s brutal exploitation film was mean, grimy and authentic, even if its reliance on tired misogynistic and gerontophobic tropes soured an otherwise satisfying experience. So perhaps the most appropriate reaction to the announcement that X would be followed up with Pearl, a prequel with Mia Goth reprising her role as the titular geriatric psycho (Goth also played final girl Maxine in X), before returning as Maxine in the 1980s in MaXXXine, is an equal mixture of intrigue and trepidation.
Certainly, no one can accuse Pearl of not exploiting its period setting. West re-stages his opening barn door shot from X, except this time instead of playing with the aspect ratio, it’s the colour, giving us a glorious, soft focus, saturated technicolour vision of the farm – last seen filtered through scratchy, over-exposed 70s grime – replete with a period-ish score, screen wipes and opening credits. The opening sequence announces a far broader canvas than the previous film, drawing inspiration from Golden-Age Hollywood cinema, The Wizard of Oz, American Gothic, and John Steinbeck. What is lost is an attentiveness to the specific aesthetics of the era, specifically the silent age of cinema in which the film is set. The anachronisms of the Golden-Age stylings and, later, gratuitous violence are further underscored by the references to silent film that Pearl explicitly makes when our heroine visits the movie theatre in town against the instructions of her strict mother (Tandi Wright).
These illicit visits transform from early acts of rebellion into a sexual awakening as the predatory Projectionist (David Corenswet) shows her pornographic films, before finally climaxing into the ultimate transgression in an orgy of murderous violence. The thematic ties with X are hardly subtle, and there are plenty of cheeky visual nods to the earlier film: the pitchfork that despatched one or two hapless chaps last time makes another appearance, as does everyone’s favourite gator, and there’s a conspicuous cross-shaped mark on the stage for Pearl’s big audition for a talent competition. There’s a little more thought behind these connections than empty Easter eggs, but equally the thesis connecting the themes of entertainment, sexual pleasure and violence rarely goes further than a cocked eyebrow and a vague gesture towards film theory.
***Spoilers from this point on***
Similarly, though Pearl goes a good way to humanising the vile hag we encountered in X – now young and attractive – the real villain of the film remains a nasty bitterness towards women. Hag duties are simply offloaded onto Pearl’s mother, whose personality traits are exclusively miserable, drawn and austerely German. Meanwhile we are to take great pleasure in the hacking to pieces of Pearl’s BFF (in admittedly the most brilliantly-staged and tense scene of the film), Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), constructed purely to be so insufferably perfect, as if she has wandered in from the neighbouring set of Little Women, that we inevitably cheer when Pearl cleaves her blandly pretty little face in two. If one were to be generous, one might argue that West is critiquing the pleasure that horror invokes in depicting violence against women, but given that Pearl takes such obvious pleasure in that violence (which admittedly is enacted against men, too), one is not especially inclined to be generous on this point.
As a final remark, Pearl is notable as a pandemic film, situating itself in the middle of the Spanish flu outbreak, though much like its engagement with sex, violence and entertainment, and its treatment of women, the film sets the table for a discussion but doesn’t quite make a full meal of it. Still, what we’re left with are now two of the most interesting and unique horror pictures of recent years, and I remain intrigued to see what West does with the third in the trilogy, albeit sceptical of the richness of its ideas.