The biggest drawback of Ti West’s retro-porno slasher X was its 70s grindhouse aesthetic, which has been ground into the dirt since at least as far back as when Rob Zombie started making movies in the aughts. X‘s biggest asset was the “X-factor appeal” of its star, Mia Goth, who has by now proven that she can do Anything. As its rushed-to-market prequel, then, Pearl is a major improvement on X by default, since it switches up its eras of pastiche for something that still has some novelty left in it, and it feeds Goth as much scenery as she wants to devour. Pearl plays with a tongue-in-cheek Technicolor melodrama aesthetic that you can usually only find in a Todd Haynes or John Waters film, not an axe-murder slasher. Stylistically, it most reminded me of the pop art farmland comedy Big Top Pee-wee, which may not be as widely beloved as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but at least hasn’t been mined dry for direct inspiration in horror circles. More importantly, it centers Goth as both an electric screen presence and as a subversive creative voice, landing her a co-writing credit alongside West. Goth is a singing, dancing, head-smashing entertainment machine, mapping out the full scope of her range between demonic shrieks and barnburner Bergman monologues. Much like X, the movie wouldn’t be much without her, but in this case she’s burned into practically every frame, sharing much less screentime with the poor collaborators who have to shine beside her.
I’m not sure Pearl benefits much from its connections to X thematically, even if it couldn’t exist without it financially. There is one scene in which the underground stag film industry of the 1910s is evoked to echo the 70s porno-shoot setting of X, but it feels shoehorned in out of obligation. When Pearl botches a chorus-line dance audition, she isn’t recruited to shoot loops. Instead, she briefly watches a stag reel from the safe distance of a projection booth. Likewise, the film is light on kills, saving Pearl’s murderous rampage for the final act, when West starts to backslide into his default 70s art horror aesthetics, forgetting the assignment at hand. The film most excels as a psychobiddy origin story, setting up the old-age resentments and pent-up hedonism the character doesn’t fully get to act on until a half-century later. We watch Pearl train her pet, people-chomping gator; we revisit the familiar layout of the farm where she spends her entire unfulfilling life; and we watch her get acquainted with the axes & adultery she eventually wields as deadly weapons. In a lot of ways, all of that self-referential lore-seeding weighs the movie down, needlessly stretching its runtime into the triple digits. Every minute we get to gaze at Goth doing her thing is time well spent, though, and she makes the most of X‘s leftover character details & production funds, scraping together the rare prequel that exceeds its original.
As lukewarm as I am on X, I do appreciate Ti West’s old-timey huckster spirit in turning it into an Event Film out of sheer force of will. While a lot of audiences have gotten hung up on Pearl‘s visual references to Douglas Sirk & The Wizard of Oz, artist Shawn Mansfield really got to the heart of the picture with the fan-art poster below, framing Pearl as a spiritual successor to William Castle’s axe-murder trashterpiece Strait-Jacket. West is dabbling in some old-fashioned William Castle razzle-dazzle with this series, relying on marketing stunts to turn X into A Thing before audiences had time to react to it genuinely. Pearl was announced in the end credits of X, filmed on its leftover sets and production funds. Likewise, the 80s porn-scene follow-up MaXXXine was announced during the end credits scroll for Pearl. Usually, that kind of manufactured cult-classic appeal would annoy me, but here it recalls a carnival barker, pro-wrestling promoter tradition in always promising the next attraction that feels very much in the spirit of old school schlockteurs like William Castle, David Friedman, and Roger Corman. On its own, Pearl could’ve been leaner, zippier, and nastier, but it’s still a hoot overall. As part of an ongoing porno-slasher trilogy, it’s likely to be the one that maintains the most novelty, since it’s set in an era that hasn’t been as overmined as the 70s & 80s in recent horror trends. I like what West is going for here, and so far the payoffs are trending upwards.