Pearl (2022) – An X-cellent Follow-Up to a Breakout Slasher

A big problem facing modern horror is the desire to be “elevated.” Since The Babadook’s release in 2014, the nebulous term has remained a constant source of discourse as many horror fans have argued over its definition and categorization. But it boils down to the idea of horror films that can still be considered “artsy” or “intelligent” and often rely on heavy subtext that almost always peaks out into the main text. It’s not always bad (look at Get Out or The VVitch), but it has created a sense of pretentiousness in the horror community that these films are somehow better because they have overt themes.

Enter Ti West, a director who broke onto the scene with The House of the Devil in 2009 and then languished in a career of one-off television directing gigs and the odd feature, a constant example of a director who had potential but wasn’t being given the vehicle to demonstrate it.

Until X.

2022’s X was a stripped back slasher film that paid reverence to the genre’s historical connection with the porn industry, while also feeling new, original and exciting (fronted by two of modern horror’s Scream Queens: Mia Goth and Jenny Ortega). What I loved about X (and what carries over into Pearl) is that it plays out entirely on the surface as an engaging slasher with gory set pieces and wonderful tension, but if you want to scratch the surface it’s not only a film about 1970s sexual repression and culture wars between conservatives and free-spirited youths, but carries a message that reflects our contemporary society.

If the film wanted to really push these ideas than leave them subtextual, it would definitely be criticized for trying to be too intellectual and wanting to be “elevated”, but instead it knows how to pair its message and themes with an engaging story that can be enjoyed by even the most media illiterate person in the world (it’s not surprise that the films biggest influence is Texas Chainsaw Massacre that occupies the exact same state in how it presents its own dialogue of warring cultures). Not long after X,  fans were treated to the announcement that Ti West and Mia Goth had produced a sequel back-to-back with the film.

Pearl, released later in the year. Focusing on the villain of X’s life in the early 1900s and providing a background to her violence in the first film. What immediately works so well about Pearl is that it can be viewed as its own separate entity should you wish. It’s strong enough to be a really great horror that you could never have even heard of X and still enjoy it. Obviously it has connections to X but it’s not bound by them in the way most prequels are.

Pearl is also about repression, specifically sexual and familial. Mia Goth plays the titular role, a woman who dreams of escaping her hum-drum farm life to become a movie star, not far from Maxine in X. But whereas the first installment is set at the tail end of the sexual revolution with the looming fear of the Reagan-era conservative politics, Pearl frames itself at the end of World War I, complete with flu pandemic ravaging America. We as the audience know that prohibition and the Great Depression are awaiting these characters (much like we know Reagan is awaiting the characters in X) but for them it’s a time of uncertainty and hope.

In both X and Pearl, these parallels between the narrative in the past and the contemporary audiences are steeped in ideas of repression and how this leads to rage. Not only for the character of Pearl (in both films) but extended to the cast and crew of the porno in X. By drawing connections and framing them against the politics of both the early 1900s and the late 70s, Ti West creates a really fascinating message about how repression is still at the heart of our modern culture today and how inescapable it has always been.

What I love about Pearl is that it is a direct re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz, and I don’t mean this in the overt imagery or color palette it takes from the 1930s classic, but instead it takes the story of a young girl, demeaned by her parents, who escapes her farm life for a world of wonder and dreams only to come back to a better world than she left, and inverts it completely. Removing the hopefulness of a film made at the end of the Great Depression and instead injecting modern-day cynicism into the idea. The Wizard of Oz was necessary in a time where the Country had seen extreme hardship (at least for everyone outside of the upper classes) and offered escapism, Ti West rejects the need for escapism in a modern context, actively advocating against it by showing the danger it can pose.

With a film made in the middle of the Covid pandemic it’s point made even stronger, but also the general political climate of not just America but the world too. And similarly you can read Pearl’s desire to become special (which mirrors Dorothy’s own experience of being a “chosen one” character arc) and a reflection of contemporary culture. With TikTok accounts, YouTube stars, and influencers living lavish lives and children actively saying that’s what they want to be when they grow up, the desire in our generations to be famous seems more insidious and ever present than before and it’s that part of culture that has people in a chokehold that Pearl is actively rebutting against. Showing how that can lead to monumental disappointment and struggle (albeit hopefully with less murder in real life). 

The film also deals heavily with the themes of repression (much like its predecessor), but while the whole X felt novel and unique, Pearl only really retreads the same ground. It creates some interesting parallels for sure, but by simply making the same message in a different time period, it fails to have that sense of uniqueness that allowed X to burst onto the scene with. I still maintain it’s a great film that can be watched independently of the first film, but when comparing the two, Pearl fails to offer any substance that wasn’t already apparent in X. Mia Goth is superb that can’t be understated, but thematically it fails to set itself apart outside of the vintage aesthetic and homages to early cinema. While I’d advocate for both films, if forced, it wouldn’t be a tough decision for me to choose X over Pearl.


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