The Movie Waffler New to VOD - PEARL | The Movie Waffler

New to VOD - PEARL

New to VOD - PEARL
A young farm girl's ambitions lead to violence.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ti West

Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro

Pearl poster

Ti West's recent 1979-set thriller X saw Mia Goth take on the dual roles of Maxine, a young pornstar, and caked in heavy makeup, Pearl, a senile and murderous octogenarian. Horror fans were surprised to learn that West had subsequently filmed Pearl, a prequel to X, which sees Goth play a young version of the title character (a third movie, focussed on Maxine and titled Maxxxine, is set to arrive this year).

Pearl review

Where X drew heavily on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pearl looks further back to another movie inspired by the exploits of notorious serial killer Ed Gein – Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, with the young Pearl pitched as a cross between Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates and Sissy Spacek's Carrie White.

It's 1918 and the world is ravaged by the Spanish flu, echoing the pandemic conditions West and his crew shot their movie under, while the Great War draws to a close in Europe. Roughly in her early twenties, Pearl is stuck on the family farm while husband Howard is off fighting on the other side of the pond. Her father (Matthew Sunderland) is paralysed, confined to a wheelchair and unable to verbally communicate. Her stern, religious German mother (Tandi Wright) has grown embittered by the cards life has cruelly dealt her, and takes this out on her daughter.

Pearl review

The one thing keeping Pearl sane is her love of the movies, which she sneaks off to whenever she's sent to town on an errand. She harbours dreams of becoming a chorus girl and enters a local competition seeking girls to embark on a roadshow. But Pearl's love of movies is corrupted when she is seduced by her local cinema's projectionist (David Corenswet), whose seduction technique involves presenting Pearl with a frame clipped from a reel of her favourite movie (hey, it'd work on me!). Growing paranoid that even he sees her as an oddball, Pearl's behaviour takes a violent turn.

West shot Pearl on the same sets as X but the movie has a very different aesthetic. Gone is the gritty '70s grindhouse look of X, replaced here by a faux-technicolor presentation of rural America not unlike Richard Donner's Norman Rockwell-inspired vision of Smallville in his Superman movies. This sunny presentation casts the mentally unwell Pearl as even more of an outsider. Backed by a peppy score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams that heavily evokes Mary Poppins, Pearl is initially seen prancing around the farm and talking to the animals (including the alligator from X) like the protagonist of some classic musical. We almost expect her to lean over a fence and start singing 'Over the Rainbow'.

Pearl review

Despite the parodic pitch of much of the drama, West and Goth (who co-wrote the script with the director) manage to suffuse the comedy with genuine tension and suspense. If you've ever seen 1974's Deranged, in which Roberts Blossoms plays a character based on…you guessed it, Ed Gein, you know what to expect from the tone here. Like that movie, Pearl gives us a…well, deranged protagonist that we simultaneously laugh at, laugh with, feel sorry for, and ultimately recoil in terror from. The movie is a hell of a showcase for Goth's talents, and she really does some wonderful work here. Her journey from put upon farm girl to a Lizzie Borden-esque axe-wielding killer is never not convincing, and a late extended monologue sees the British actress gifted the sort of scene that might garner awards talk if awards bodies weren't so snooty about genre pictures.

Pearl owes a debt to a lot of previous movies, and to America's real life history of colourful homicidal maniacs, but its primary coloured presentation and heavy reliance on the offbeat charisma of its young leading lady make it something of a unique experience in the current monotonous landscape of the mainstream American horror movie.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews