Audiences for Ti West’s effective, gruesome retro-shocker X — in which porno filmmakers run into an aged, homicidal farmwife in 1979 — were doubly surprised by the end credits. First, there was the revelation that ‘final girl’ Maxine and pension-age mass murderess Pearl were both played (extraordinarily) by Mia Goth. Then, there was a trailer for a Pearl-centric prequel which West and Goth (who co-wrote Pearl) put together before the first film was released. This might seem presumptuous or ill-advised — like making Joker, but with a newly minted character who hasn’t yet permeated pop culture. Several entries in the Texas Chainsaw franchise (to which X owes a huge, admitted debt) stumble by telling more than anyone cares to know about where Leatherface came from.
In the event, Pearl isn’t an exercise in filmmakers doing their own fan fiction but the ambitious, impressive centrepiece in what’s now revealed as a trilogy. The threads will be drawn together next year in MaXXXine, which picks up Maxine’s story in 1985. Ti West has always been in love with recreating bygone modes of cinema — 2009’s The House Of The Devil, his breakthrough picture, was a perfect pastiche of the 1970s TV horror movie, and In A Valley Of Violence (2016) is a suspense Western — while finding ways of connecting the pop culture of the past with the things that scare us today. Pearl is set during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, but the characters (who wear masks to venture into town) suffer from many of the woes of the modern lockdown era. Even isolated Pearl’s dream of becoming a movie star feels as close to a present-day aspiration to YouTube fame or influencer status as the eternal yearning of girls on farms to be spirited over the rainbow, as enshrined in classic Hollywood.
Just as X cobbled together elements from exploitation horror and sex films of the 1970s, Pearl references inside-the-mind-of-a-maniac horror movies.
West never lets the viewer forget that this is a new-old movie. The opening credits, over a freeze-frame of the smiling Pearl feeding a pitchfork-skewered goose to her alligator best friend, are in a swirly pink font. The almost-continuous orchestral score by Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams is a romantic counterpoint to the onscreen action. Pearl herself is constantly referring to the movies (she names her cows after film stars) and sneaking out against her grim mother’s (Tandi Wright) wishes, to waste money in the local picture palace. With her husband (Alistair Sewell) overseas — she imagines him waving cheerily as he comes home, stepping on a landmine in her yard and being blown to bloody little bits — Pearl is attracted to a ridiculously handsome projectionist (David Corenswet). In his secret cinema stash is a stag reel foreshadowing the Deep Throat-era smut of X, which will rekindle Pearl’s sexual fantasies and killer instincts.
Pearl dances with a scarecrow and filches its top hat for her dance costume, but West and Goth take another Oz image and present it as an expression of frustrated sexuality and seething, incipient mania. Just as X cobbled together elements from exploitation horror and sex films of the 1970s, Pearl references inside-the-mind-of-a-maniac horror movies. A cooked pig left on the porch, which Pearl’s starving but proud mother won’t eat because it’s a charitable gift from her son-in-law’s family, decays and crawls with maggots like the rabbit that parallels Catherine Deneuve’s mental collapse in Repulsion. Pearl sometimes seems on her way to becoming Norman Bates’ mother, and a tableau of corpses around the dinner table evokes Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the slightly less mainstream down-home horror hit Deranged. The dilapidated farm of X is seen here 60 years earlier, with a fresh coat of paint, but that flesh-hungry ’gator already lurks in the lake on the property and Pearl is well on the way to becoming a magnificent monster.
In recent years, there’s been a tradition of female actors getting showcase roles in horror — Essie Davis in The Babadook, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Rebecca Hall in The Night House. Goth, whose range encompasses Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac) and Jane Austen (Emma.), is an astonishing addition to this company. In a turning point, Pearl demands to know why the projectionist isn’t attracted to her anymore, and the grown-up gives a child’s response: “You’re scaring me.” Goth does a great deal more than scare us, with a showstopper soliloquy delivered to her absent husband, eloquent physical action in dance and murder scenes (she’s as limber a performer as the robot girl in M3GAN) — and a final smile more frightening than any of the rictus grins in Smile, perhaps the equal of the smirk on Mrs Bates’ mummified skull.