Every place other than home is where our demented dreamer wants to be in Pearl, Ti West’s prequel to X. Whereas the predecessor was set in 1979 and paid loving homage to the grime of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this basks in the glow of The Wizard of Oz and other Golden Age works. Shot in New Zealand back to back, X and Pearl are vastly different experiences. They do share a setting where unspeakable gore occurs.
They also share Mia Goth. Unlike in X, she inhabits the screen from open to close. You will recall her from X as the elderly tormentor of a porn flick crew shooting on her property (Goth also played a drug addled starlet from the one day shoot that ends prematurely). As just Pearl here, we see her in 1918. The Great War is raging and that’s where her husband Howard is. She’s young, vibrant, and fantasizes of being a starlet herself. Pearl resides at the farm with her no nonsense German speaking mom (Tandi Wright) and sickly father (Matthew Sunderland). Her dreams of becoming a chorus girl are played out in the barn in front of the animals and their little bleating hearts.
We know from X that Pearl’s psychological issues are likely to kick into high gear. West and Goth (who cowrote the screenplay) still manage to take us in unexpected and stimulating directions. When Pearl meets a bohemian projectionist (David Corenswet) working at the local cinema, it arouses her desire to not be in Kansas anymore. **Side note: I don’t believe this is actually set in Kansas, but it could be with all those cornrows.
While Mom vehemently disapproves, Pearl hears of an audition opportunity to join a traveling troupe. We arrive there following family squabbles that lead our title character to see her dance tryout as her only means of escape. X was an ensemble piece. Pearl is a Goth show and she wows. From that aforementioned audition to a dinner table confession with her sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro, looking as petrified as the audience), this is perhaps the trippiest lead horror performance since Toni Collette’s in fellow A24 fright fest Hereditary. You don’t wanna take your eyes off her, including during the closing credits.
While X and Pearl do indeed share that farmland, I found the latter to be more rewarding overall. The director and lead are having a ball as they inject some darkness into the Technicolor brightness. It usually feels like they are giving the best of what they have.
***1/2 (out of four)