PEARL (2022) – Horror Prequel Decent Follow-up to X (2022); Another Showcase for Mia Goth

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PEARL (2022), the new horror movie by director/writer Ti West, is a prequel to his earlier horror movie from this year, X (2022), which so far is among my favorite horror movies of the year.

X told the story of a group of people setting out to make a porn movie on a farm, but their plans were thwarted by the elderly couple who owned the farm, who seemingly took offense to an X-rated movie being made on their property. The story took place in the 1970s, and the main character was a young woman named Maxine (Mia Goth), who was making the porn movie because she wanted to become a famous movie star. Goth also played the elderly farm owner Pearl (under heavy prosthetics and make-up), who in the words of PSYCHO’s Norman Bates, just “goes a little crazy” at times. Pearl, seemingly upset that these young people were having sex, while she and her elderly husband were not, flipped out and went on a brutal murder spree in the film’s final reel.

PEARL is her story, explaining a little bit of her history and how she became the person we saw in X.

PEARL takes place in 1918, during World War I, amid the pandemic of the Spanish flu, and when we meet Pearl (Mia Goth) she is living on her farm in Texas with her parents, her excruciatingly strict mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) who is now a mute invalid. Pearl’s husband Howard is away fighting in the war.

Life is hard. Money is tight, and Ruth believes they must make it on their own. She doesn’t trust other people, and she fears that their German ancestry will be held against them. However, making it “on their own” mostly involves making Pearl do all the difficult jobs, like feeding her invalid father and cleaning him after bowel movements. Pearl just wants to escape. She loves the movies and wants to become a dancer like she sees in the movies.

She befriends the local projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to follow her dreams. He also introduces her to black market sex movies, which he says will become legal one day. When there’s a dance try-out at the local church, Pearl sees this as her chance to escape from the farmhouse. But her mother will have none of it, and she tells Pearl she’s a failure and she won’t succeed in her dreams. She also adds that she knows how Pearl really is, and that she sees the things Pearl does when she thinks no one is watching, and she pretty much tells Pearl that she’s not normal and that because of this she will frighten people and will never succeed.

Wow. Can someone say, Mommie Dearest?

Well, she’s not wrong, and when Pearl snaps later in the movie, we see just exactly how it is that Pearl frightens people.

PEARL is a decent follow-up to X, although I liked X better, as that film paid homage to the 1970s horror flicks as well as 1970s porn movies and captured the flavor of both. PEARL doesn’t have this added element. It takes place in 1918, but it’s not shot as an homage to that time period or to silent movies. It’s filmed in bright vibrant colors, which seem to embody Pearl’s wide-eyed hopes and dreams. At the end of the day, this one is about exactly what its title says it’s about, Pearl.

It’s all about Pearl. And to that end, it’s mildly interesting. Strangely, it almost feels like it’s a back story for the other character Mia Goth played in X, Maxine, as Maxine wanted to be a star more than anything. Here in PEARL, we see that Pearl too wants to be a star more than anything. It’s what drives her throughout this movie. When I saw X, I believed that the elderly Pearl flipped out over the characters making a porn movie because she and her husband could no longer have sex, and she wanted to have sex. That’s what the movie implied. I mean, we saw scenes of Pearl crawling into bed with Maxine. We didn’t see scenes of Pearl yearning to be a dancer.

Yet here in PEARL, that’s all Pearl wants, to be a dancer and to become famous, both in the hopes of getting off her farm. The sex angle is here, but it’s downplayed. There is one scene where Pearl has a romantic fantasy with a scarecrow, but when the projectionist shows Pearl the silent sex movie, she’s hardly aroused. Pearl behaves like any normal woman who’s longing for her husband to return would behave. While she displays various abnormalities, all of which lead to murder, her sex drive isn’t one of them. Yet, this is the side of her personality which seemed to be driving her to kill in X. But the events in PEARL say otherwise.

On the other hand, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I just find it odd that Pearl in X didn’t speak of wanting to become a star or react to Maxine’s wanting to be a star, and that when we do see the beginnings of Pearl’s violent side here in PEARL, none of it has to do with sex, which was the prevalent theme in X.

The best and darkest scenes in PEARL are between Pearl and her mother, and these are the most disturbing and painful sequences in the movie. The sequence at the dinner table where the two characters eventually come to blows is the most powerful scene in the movie. The subsequent murders are well-staged and elaborate, but they’re not all that scary. The murders worked better in X.

PSYCHO was mentioned in X, and there were hints in that movie linking Pearl’s behavior to Norman Bates’, and so I was happy to see some more PSYCHO references here in PEARL. In PSYCHO, Bates hides his mother’s body in the fruit cellar. Here, Pearl hides her mother’s body in the root cellar.

The alligator is back and swimming in the waters around the farm, and Pearl seems to be its best friend, as she feeds it regularly. Technically, it could be the same alligator from X, but with 50 years between the two stories, it would be plenty old. It’s probably a different alligator. Either way, the alligators sequences in X were scarier.

X also had stronger characters.

Both films have Mia Goth though, and she’s terrific in both movies. I’ve been a fan of Goth’s since I first saw her in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a horror movie I liked a lot. Goth is perfect as Pearl. At times, she seems so wide-eyed and innocent, and at others, she seems so very, very bad. Her expression during the last shot of the film, as the end credits begin, which is not a freeze frame, says it all, as we see the full gamut of emotions: surprise, happiness, tears, fear, and finally vulnerability and steadfastness. It’s a terrific performance. She’s the best part of the movie.

Goth also co-wrote the screenplay with Ti West, and it’s her first screenwriting credit. The script does a decent job explaining Pearl’s backstory, even if at times it seems as if it’s trying to tell Maxine’s backstory. The point I guess is that in X, Pearl would have seen a lot of herself in Maxine. But the overall composition of the film isn’t quite as solid as X, which had better characters and also served as an homage to two film types, 1970s horror and porn.

Tandi Wright is icy cold as Pearl’s mother Ruth, and I’m tempted to say the audience won’t feel much sympathy for her when she gets her comeuppance, but in that aforementioned sequence at the dinner table, when tempers flare, Ruth unleashes and lets out how unhappy she is now, and that she is supposed to be a wife not a mother to her husband. Wright allows the audience to see how she became the heartless woman she is in the movie.

David Corenswet is dashing as the confident young projectionist. He’s also one of the more underutilized characters in the story, as for a time it seemed as if he was going to have more of an impact with Pearl, but that’s not the case.

Ti West films PEARL with big bold bright swipes, embodying Pearl’s hopes and dreams, and so this one doesn’t look like a horror film. The violence and murders don’t come until late in the game, and they grow more gruesome as they go along, although none here are quite as powerful as the sequences found in X.

PEARL is a decent prequel, and although it’s not as good as X, it’s still a showcase for Mia Goth, and she’s the reason to see this movie, as her performance brings Pearl and all her madness to insane painful life.

I give it two and a half stars.

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X (2022) – Exceptional Horror Movie Captures Feel of Both 1970s Horror and Porn Movies

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It’s 1979, and a group of young filmmakers set up shop at a farmhouse in rural Texas where they plan to shoot a porno movie, hoping to cash in on the growing genre, but the elderly owners of the farm where they are staying have some rather different ideas about sex and don’t take too kindly to the acts happening under the roof of their guest house. In fact, things get rather violent. And very, very bloody.

That’s the premise behind X (2022), a new horror movie by writer/director Ti West, which in the process of telling this compelling story, also captures the feel of both a 1970s porn flick and a 1970s horror movie. It’s DEBBIE DOES DALLAS meets THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977).

Maxine (Mia Goth) wants to be a star, and as she says, she doesn’t want to be denied all that life can give her, and so she travels with her much older boyfriend Wayne (Martin Henderson) to make an adult movie in which she will star. Wayne is the brains behind the movie and serves as the producer. He hires a young filmmaker RJ (Owen Campbell) whose intent is to make more than just a porn film, as he wants to give it style. Helping RJ is his young girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), and rounding out the team is Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), a stripper with adult movie experience, and her boyfriend Jackson (Kid Cudi) who plays the main male lead in their movie, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” which follows Jackson’s character as he arrives at a farmhouse when his car breaks down and meets the various daughters at the farm. Well, it is a porn movie, after all!

All is well, until the old couple at the main farmhouse discover what they are doing, and then the body count begins.

I really enjoyed X, and one of the main reasons is that Ti West’s screenplay in addition to creating interesting characters tells a far deeper story than a murder tale about two elderly prudes who want to stamp out the evils of sex. The prevalent them in X is aging and how life goes by in the blink of an eye. The couple, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (also played by Mia Goth)— both actors are under heavy prosthetic make-up to make them look exceedingly old— are haunted by the fact that the best times of their lives have passed them by, especially Pearl, who seeks out Maxine, and is sexually attracted to her.

Heck, you can break things down here to the fact that Pearl just wants to have sex, and she can’t anymore. Her husband Howard is too afraid to touch her because of his weak heart, and he fears that he won’t survive a sexual encounter. So, when Pearl observes these people having sex while making their movie, she is motivated more by jealousy than out of moral disdain.

There’s also a PSYCHO vibe happening here… in fact, Hitchcock’s classic is mentioned in a conversation in the movie… as when Pearl disappears, and Howard asks for help finding her, he says she’s not well, and after a pause says he’s afraid she would get lost in the woods alone, but during that pause, the implication is that, in the words of Norman Bates, “she just goes a little crazy sometimes.”

We will learn more about Pearl, because Ti West is filming a prequel to this movie about the character, and Mia Goth will reprise the role.

Speaking of Goth, she is outstanding here in the dual role of Maxine and Pearl. As Maxine, Goth exudes sexuality and promise, and it’s clear that she will do just about anything to fulfill her goal of becoming a famous star. As Pearl, Goth captures a weary sadness of a life gone by, while at the same time imbuing the old woman with an underlying sense of insanity. You know right away that there’s something off about this lady, and that she is capable of some truly violent acts.

Mia Goth is no stranger to horror movies. She starred in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), Gore Verbinski’s atmospheric and steamy flick about a sinister wellness center that captured the look and feel of the classic Hammer movies of yesteryear. It was one of my favorite movies that year. Goth also starred in the remake of SUSPIRIA (2018).

With his cowboy hat and southern drawl, Martin Henderson channels a Matthew McConaughey vibe in his performance as Wayne, the smooth-talking producer and man running the show. Brittany Snow as Bobby-Lynne is sufficiently sexy and wise to the ways of the world, and Kid Cudi is solid as Jackson, the porn actor who is also a Vietnam vet who is cool under pressure.

Owen Campbell is convincing as RJ, the young innovative filmmaker, who wants to be creating art here rather than pornography, and Jenna Ortega is spot on as Lorraine, RJ’s girlfriend who barely says a word and seems to frown upon the type of movie they are making, but then does an about face and decides she wants to be in the movie, a turnaround that does not sit well with RJ. She also gets one of the film’s better moments, late in the game, when she’s screaming and hysterical, and Maxine begs her to calm down, that they need to work together, to which Lorraine basically tells her to go f*ck herself and she runs smack dab into the end of her life, which is one of the few laugh out loud moments in the movie.

Once the movie pivots to straight horror in its final thirty minutes, director Ti West holds nothing back in the gore department. As I said, it captures the feel and flavor of 1970s horror. Some of the killings are over the top and will generate nervous laughter. In fact, in a few places, West uses humor well, including the last line of the movie, spoken by the sheriff who up until that point hadn’t uttered a single line in the entire film.

So, on top of ample sex, there’s plenty of blood and gore, and West handles it all expertly. The film earns its R rating, and then some. I was somewhat disappointed that the film included yet another “bare foot stepping on a nail” scene, which seems to be a thing nowadays and has been featured in numerous horror movies in recent years. But the rest of the fright scenes work well, from eye gouging to head smashing, and even a hungry alligator gets in on the action. If you love gore, you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re squeamish, you may find yourself looking away from the screen.

The “X” in the title obviously refers to the X rating which was used for porn films back in the 1970s, but it also has the double meaning for something Wayne continually talks about in the movie, the “X-factor,” which is as he says that thing which some people just have which makes them a success and separates them from people with equal talent. He continually tells Maxine that she’s got it.

And in life, this is largely true. Regardless of the endeavor, some people just have “it,” that uncategorized intangible thing, some call it charisma or a gift, that gives them an edge. In this film, Maxine believes she has this X-factor, and it drives her personality forward and influences her actions. She is someone who is trying to break away from her past, take part in the American dream, and become a success.

X, which was released theatrically back in March, and is now available to rent on Prime Video, is a well-made horror movie that I liked a lot. It has interesting characters, a plot that goes deeper than one would expect in a horror movie about the making of a porn movie, and once it gets to its horror sequences, takes no prisoners and goes for the throat all the way down to its final reel.

X is X-ceptional horror.

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