Pearl (2022)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

X (2022)

Considered in isolation, X is okay.  It can be a little phony & shallow in spurts, but it’s a decent enough slasher with novel themes & settings not usually explored in the genre.  Considered in a larger scope, it’s frustratingly stagnant. It’s getting extremely tired watching so many modern horror movies borrow their authenticity from vintage grindhouse cinema instead of genuinely attempting something new & risky.  Ti West directed his breakout calling-card movie House of the Devil thirteen long years ago, and he was already indulging this kind of 70s & 80s throwback aesthetic back then.  Hell, Rob Zombie directed House of 1,000 Corpses two decades ago.  There have certainly been better grindhouse throwbacks made since 2003, but I don’t know that there have been any transcendent triumphs that justify wallowing in that nostalgia swamp for this long instead of attempting something freshly upsetting.  Even when X excels in its go-for-broke moments of icky discomfort, I find myself questioning why this filmmaking mode is always set in the 70s or 80s now and buried under so many retro style markers.  It feels stuck, as if West and his contemporaries are outright afraid of modern settings & new tones, using disreputable vintage subgenres as a stylistic, contextual crutch.

Worse, X is outright condescending to one of the drive-in era subgenres it’s supposedly paying tribute to.  This is a grimy slasher film about a small crew of subprofessional pornographers who are slaughtered by elderly Evangelicals in rural Texas, 1979.  The film is most satisfying as a Texas Chainsaw-inspired creep-out, unleashing a long-isolated family of murderous weirdos onto the big-city “sex fiends” who invade their small town.  It’s also admirable in the way it highlights the true independent filmmaking spirit shared between horror & pornography in that era – two low-budget/high-profitability genres that were closely paralleled in their production & reputation.  It’s annoying, then, that X‘s view of late-70s pornography is so phony & patronizing.  Its six-person film crew is supposedly committed to creating porn that can be enjoyed & appreciated as legitimate art instead of disposable smut, but they’re working on a goofy cliché titled The Farmer’s Daughters, which they intend to distribute on VHS (despite shooting on film, a more expensive format).  There’s a bizarre dissonance there, as if they’re discussing the production of Equation to an Unknown but in practice filming scenes from Bat Pussy. The audience has no choice but to laugh at their artistic ambitions, since the conflict between their words and their work is played as a joke.  I hate to be such a scold about this, but presenting the concept of artful pornography as inherently funny is pretty hack & outdated at this point, especially if your recreation of it is the same funk guitar & screeching orgasms as a 90s sketch parody.  This goes doubly so if you’re borrowing the look & feel of vintage pornography—low-budget genre films made fully in earnest—to boost the entertainment value of your A24-distributed horror mainstreamer.  It’s insulting.

It’s a testament to Mia Goth’s fearlessness & “X-factor” appeal that X amounts to anything remarkable at all.  She stars in dual roles as a young porno actress and her elderly, sexually-repressed admirer: a lonely old woman whose Evangelical husband no longer desires her, so she violently seeks extramarital satisfaction with the unsuspecting youth they lure to their farm.  There’s something special about the intergenerational dynamic Goth shares between the two versions of herself.  She paws at her own flesh in lecherous hunger, willing to burn down the entire world just to get one last taste of youthful beauty before death.  The closest The Farmer’s Daughters’ crew gets to announcing X‘s central theme is when they lament “One day we’re going to be too old to fuck.” It’s an epiphany that doubles as a blanket excuse for hedonism and as a genuinely horrific vision of their sexless, geriatric future.  What I can’t figure out is why West felt the need to bury that vision under so much phony vintage-grindhouse cheese.  His heart really isn’t in the throwback genre markers anyway.  The porno recreations are treated as a joke, and the slasher scenes include cross-cutting transition techniques that have no discernible purpose besides feeling quaintly outdated.  It’s not enough that West mocks his pornographer characters for wanting to make ambitious art out of smut; he can’t even match their “avant-garde cinema” ambitions in his own work.  Only Goth comes through with anything worth championing here. At least she gets to do it twice.

As far as retro porno-horrors go, X is no Knife+Heart.  I’m not even convinced it’s the better Texas Chainsaw throwback from this year.  There is a great, discomforting slasher film lurking somewhere in the tension between those two genre divides, though.  It’s just a shame it wasn’t allowed to be its own thing without paying homage to an already overmined past.

-Brandon Ledet