The creaking homestead where horror craftsman Ti West staged his own Texas Massacre “X,” which released earlier this year, is now also the setting for the director’s prequel, “Pearl,” whose title tells us who, from the featured Slayer to the Killerstar has risen.
The confident, cautiously slinky “X” was a 1970s slasher/porn homage about an adult film crew who got hooked on their farmer’s daughter’s scenario and got a very different kind of action than they intended. In a cleverly articulated dual role, Mia Goth plays both an ambitious young porn actress and her aged hostess/stalker Pearl – women from different eras gripped by a craving for attention, only one of whom has curdled from a thwarted fate.
Now, Pearl gets her much-desired youthful limelight in a WWI-era origin story West co-wrote (and filmed back-to-back with “X”) with returning star Goth. Pearl reimagines the film’s eerie, ramshackle farmhouse and barn as a colorful, manicured setting for a widescreen, orchestral tale about a wide-eyed hopeful whose use of a pitchfork is still only for haymaking. Pitching and dance practice, and, well, ok, maybe it’s a little odd that she’s impaling waterfowl with it to feed the swamp alligator.
A devotee of moving images and enamored of the kind of fame they offer, Pearl is nevertheless stuck in a certain American gothic: dutiful daughter of a strict, devout Germanic mother (Tandi Wright, who channels Bergman’s austerity), nurse to her disabled father ( Matthew Sunderland, who does a lot with his eyes) and patiently waiting wife of a soldier’s husband in battle. It’s also 1918, so the still-raging flu pandemic adds an extra layer of confinement – Mother would never approve of Pearl accompanying her kind sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro) to an upcoming dance audition.
But Pearl’s confidence that there’s more out there — that she’s the biggest undiscovered star alive — is an unstoppable force, and it’s pulling her toward increasingly eccentric and deceptive behavior. West’s punctuation of allusive “Wizard of Oz” elements is memorably twisted when Pearl’s playful dance with a cornfield scarecrow suddenly turns hot and troubled. And on a clandestine trip to the local cinema, she falls in love with the handsome, hunky projectionist and wannabe producer (David Corenswet), who agrees – though not necessarily in the way Pearl imagined – that she is an untapped talent and convinced she can do something about it.
What we’re waiting for, of course, is for Pearl to lash out at anyone who gets in her way. West, one of the true craftsmen of the sticky horror genre, certainly enjoys infusing a nicely assembled and shot (by Eliot Rockett) historical melodrama with the trappings of menacing violence, from the crimson wallpaper to a maggot-infested suckling pig. But “Pearl” rarely justifies itself as a standalone franchise, building on the early psychosis of its bloodthirsty, unstable ingenuity when the crumpled version in “X” was enticingly freaky enough, yet its arguments for the subjugation and exploitation of female sexuality across the country made generations. A gifted filmmaker, for example, could probably make a usefully disturbed film about the background of Carrie White’s horrific mother, but what would he say that hasn’t already been said? (Please no, directors.)
That’s not to say that Goth, with her pleasantly wacky Hayley Mills energy, isn’t great in Pearl’s Texas tornado of sweet, scary, and sad. But the scaffolding of virtuosity is at times too obvious, never more so than when Pearl delivers a tearful confessional monologue late in the film, which West serves up in a long close-up on goth. Whether it’s a horror master’s quest for dramatic weight or a grand gesture to a talented leading lady, it’s tenuous rather than revealing. It’s jokingly complemented shortly thereafter, however, with a similarly lengthy grasp on Goth’s frozen, creepy smile, which is infinitely more in tune with the half-crazy/half-fun vibe that defines Pearl at its most entertaining.
Rated: R, for some heavy violence, gore, heavy sexual content, and graphic nudity
Runtimes: 1 hour 42 minutes
To play: Launches September 16th in general release
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-15/review-pearl-x-horror-ti-west-mia-goth ‘Pearl’ review: Mia Goth is enjoyably demented in ‘X’ prequel