Pearl (2022) Movie Review - Excellent Origin Story Horror

Horror | 102 Min
Cover from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)
  • Director: Ti West
  • Actors: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, Alistair Sewell
  • Writers: Ti West, Mia Goth
  • Producers: Jacob Jaffke, Ti West, Kevin Turen, Harrison Kreiss
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Parental: Violence, Injury Detail, Violence To Animals, Nudity, Sexual Content, Language
  • Horror | 102 Min

In 1918 a young woman on the brink of madness pursues stardom in a desperate attempt to escape the drudgery isolation and lovelessness of life on her parents' farm.

Welcome to Knockout Horror. Ti West’s MaXXXine recently released in cinemas so I figured this would be a good opportunity to catch up on the Maxine Minx series. I completely missed X and Pearl and never got around to checking them out, despite people constantly raving about them. I reviewed X yesterday and followed up, that night, by watching the movie we will be reviewing today, Pearl. If you want to read my thoughts on the latest entry, MaXXXine, click right here.

Being completely honest, I totally didn’t get the hype surrounding X. Outside of the Tarantino-wannabe stylings of Ti West, the constant nods to the camera and retro-modern take on psycho-biddy horror. I just found it to be a formulaic, slow paced and rather dull slasher with little to separate it from the crowd. To say this numbed my enthusiasm for Pearl would be something of an understatement.

How Wrong I Was

Damn was I wrong to judge the prequel in a vacuum with the first movie. Pearl is a far superior movie to X in just about every way. I actually rate this as one of the better horror slashers in quite a long time. How much of that is West’s design versus Mia Goth’s increased involvement in the creation process is up for debate. But Pearl stands as a far stronger outing.

A screenshot from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)

I should state, before we carry on. If you are a fan of X, Pearl is not a guaranteed must watch. The two movies are so different from each other to the point that they share virtually nothing in common outside of the primary character. For those of you new to Ti West, this is what he does. Each of his movies tends to lampoon the style and presentation of a certain era in movie making. No two are ever very alike and none of his movies are distinctly his.

He is a talented filmmaker but takes 90% of his cues from other movies. Pearl is slower, more story heavy, far more character driven and far less like a traditional horror movie. Keep that in mind as you will experience no small amount of whiplash effect going into this movie. I expect the exact same thing from MaXXXine. The only question is which type of era and genre is he going to rip off next.

An Interesting Character Study

The premise here is fairly simple. Pearl follows the origin story of X’s aging antagonist. We see Pearl as a young woman growing up on the first movie’s farm during war time. Her strict mother places massive restrictions on her and demands compliance. Despite this, Pearl has dreams of making it to the big screen and she will do absolutely anything to achieve them.

A screenshot from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)

The film plays out, mostly, from Pearl’s perspective and acts as a character study of someone with severe personality issues. Pearl’s murderous tendencies are on display early on but it isn’t until life attempts to get in the way of her aspirations that things really start to get crazy. The contrast between Pearl’s daydreaming and her mother’s stern discipline plays centre stage in the character’s development. As she finally begins to lose her will to leave her fantasy world and live in the real one.

Stylistically Superior 

Whereas X was set in the 70s and featured a Tobe Hooper inspired presentation and setup. Pearl leans far more into the Technicolor golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s. Everything is filmed with a bright, over saturated, colour palette, transitions are stripped right out of early talkies and there is a distinct Wizard of Oz vibe to everything.

As far as styles go, this is way more my cup of tea than X. The style here doesn’t feel so obstructive. It never gets in the way of the story being told and it never feels as though the presentation is more important than the characters or narrative. Sure, it won’t be for everyone and fans of X are sure to feel some sort of whiplash effect. But, for me, this is a much better looking movie. West has captured a lot of what made movies from that era so charming and to do it against the backdrop of a horror movie is quite the achievement. 

A screenshot from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)

That doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t a visual treat, though. Certain scenes are brilliantly set up. Pearl’s audition for a dancing role is perfectly done and utterly hilarious. Her ending monologue is beautifully shot and features an inspired choice to use limited angles and long takes. And some of the kill scenes are excellent. One, in particular, later on in the movie is brilliant and one of my favourite slasher kills in quite awhile. It’s rare that anything in horror makes us yell “RUN!!” at the screen while laughing wildly but Pearl achieved that with my fiancée and I. Pearl has a way of grabbing you and pulling you into what’s taking place. It’s thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Less is More

I think a key factor in Pearl’s improvement over X is that Ti West dials back the bullshit, a lot. This feels far less like Ti West trying too hard to appeal to the style over substance crowd and far more like a director trying to make a great horror with a well developed story.

A screenshot from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)

Gone are the overt references to other movies. Gone are the winks to the camera and gone are the poorly fleshed out characters and pointless preamble. Everything here is deliberately designed to take us into the mind of Pearl. It feels as though everything has a point and a purpose. Something that X just didn’t share. 

Whether any of this is deliberate, or not, is up for debate. Pearl was written in quick fashion during New Zealand’s two week mandatory quarantine period before the production of X. The movie was greenlit before X even began filming and it would seem Mia Goth had a larger part in the creative process, sharing writing credits on the movie. Either way, Pearl benefits from the less is more approach in a huge way. 

A Fascinating Character

I have to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to this movie as I just didn’t think Pearl was an interesting character. X hinted at a dark past but I just didn’t see much reason to care. I was definitely mistaken on that point, though. Pearl is such a well developed character and Goth is allowed to simply go wild with her. She leans heavily into traits commonly seen with personality disorders but turns it up to 11. Pearl’s need to be loved and appreciated results in murderous rage and it is so convincingly done. 

Goth switches from sweet as pie to insane lunatic in a heartbeat. The switch in her facial façade is actually quite shocking. Making certain scenes an absolute riot for their spontaneity. You see it coming but you don’t see how it will happen. It’s great stuff. Goth is utterly fantastic. This is one of the best performances in horror in a very long time. Her monologue later in the movie is one for the horror ages. The only criticism I could possibly aim at her is, like X, her accent slips every now and then and feels a bit pantomime at times. Everything else is perfect.

A screenshot from Ti West's horror prequel Pearl (2022)

Special note has to go to New Zealand actor Tandi Wright who plays Pearl’s mother. Brought in at the last minute after a position as an intimacy coordinator on X. She is sensational. Learning the German lines in two weeks and absolutely nailing them is one thing. But to put on the convincing, and honestly quite touching, performance she does is incredible.  

Should You Watch Pearl?

You should definitely watch Pearl if you are a fan of interesting horror movies. I won’t take back what I said about Ti West in my X review but this is a huge improvement. Legitimately great, beautifully shot, hilarious yet brutal and with one of the best horror performances in years from Goth. Pearl is a brilliant movie that fixes all of my criticisms of X. X fans should take note, however. This movie is so different from X that there is no guarantee you will enjoy it. It is completely different in every way and does none of the stuff that you may have liked about X. How that impacts your enjoyment is down to your own personal preferences.

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