I saw a tweet not long ago that asked where our female slasher franchise killers were (feminism!). Someone replied that with her new horror prequel, Orphan: First Kill, Leena Kramer (Isabelle Fuhrman) was bringing a woman’s touch to slaying. On her heels comes another horror prequel securing yet another woman into the canon of psycho killer franchise leaders (especially with the newly announced third installment, Maxxxine), Pearl. Pearl (Mia Goth) slashed her way into audiences’ hearts in Ti West’s surprising springtime banger, X, and this stand-alone/ companion piece has rocked up to tell more of her blood-soaked story.
Long before Pearl was the horny old woman with a pitchfork, she was a horny young woman with a Disney princess sensibility and a pitchfork. In 1918, Pearl lives the life of a farmer’s daughter, her husband at war and her overbearing mother afraid of the Spanish flu. Rebelling against the role of caregiver, Pearl sneaks away to see the pictures where she meets a spicy projectionist (David Corenswet) who bolsters her self esteem and teaches her more about the films she could dance in. Wanting nothing more but to break free from her provincial life, Pearl continues to sneak away to catch the show and practice her dance routine. But her shots at stardom are fleeting, and a woman like Pearl doesn’t take bad news too well.
Mia Goth joined director Ti West in writing this “x-traordinary origin story.” The pair, while locked down for their two-week mandatory quarantine in New Zealand, concocted the idea of shooting a second movie simultaneously to X to get A24’s money’s worth on the setup. They got the greenlight before beginning to shoot X, and were thus able to create a story and its prequel at the same time. While the films are technically stand-alone, those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing X will get much more out of some gags and character history. Like all good prequels, Pearl expands upon character traits to portray their origins, for instance, adding delightful context to the moment in X where Pearl performs a bloody dance routine. Also, by exploiting the audience’s knowledge of the first installment, moments are rife with extra comedy, especially in the applause-worthy finale where Howard (Alistair Sewell) finally appears.
While shooting the films at once provided for clear foresight allowing for shared threads and extra gags, the films boast completely different tones. It’s not just Goth’s change from cool-toned makeup with freckles to warm skin and a pink lip, but her performance, setting, and theme songs are of almost different genres. While both movies lean into rural horror, X feels like a grindhouse slimey slaughterfest where Pearl feels like The Wizard of Oz. Pearl looks shot in technicolor, with vibrant reds and blues that frame the change in Pearl from Dorothy into the Wicked Witch of the West. Especially in her opening moments, the score seamlessly dances from Snow White to Jason Voorhees, Goth’s consistently unhinged performance leading the way.
Goth’s unhinged performance elevates this movie from great to incredible in ways near impossible to describe. She balances the role of a naïve Disney princess type with utterly demented killer in a way that would make every single David Fincher villain shudder. She delivers an emotional rollercoaster of a monologue that’s the line-delivery equivalent of a decathlon that left me absolutely breathless. Her credits roll gag is so unbelievable that the audience launched into applause on more than one occasion, and then again when West shared that she did it on a whim on the first take. It’s her performance and the duo’s approach to the character that slots Pearl into the slasher canon as the type of killer you can’t help but kind of root for, playing games with letting us be enveloped by her terrifying origin story while watching her perform heinous acts. It would be easy to say that West has a muse in Goth, but more so, West truly has a creative partner in this incredible woman who can weaponize a smile in a way that begs to be plastered on posters.
Pearl is both the more tame and subdued horror story in this mini-franchise and the more disturbed installment by a country mile. West and Goth have expanded on the first installment’s tale of sexual repression as violence in this deranged feature that’s elevated even further by Goth’s sparkling and wistful performance as a ruthless killer.
Pearl played at the Toronto International Film Festival and hits theaters September 16, 2022