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Review: Pearl -“The supervillain origin story we don’t deserve”

Welcome to Ti West’s cinematic horror-verse, a perfect mix of originality, cinephile homage and genre-blending that will leave you wanting for more! Whether you’re a newbie or a hard-core fan of the multi-hyphenate American filmmaker’s cult hit “X”, Pearl works perfectly in both cases and it’s undoubtedly the best way to get lost in this brilliant artist’s twisted mind.

After working steadily in many a capacity since the early noughties in both film and television, last year West made loud breakthrough noise with X, the slasher flick about a 1979 adult film crew traveling to an isolated Texas farm to shoot porn but winding up in a violent nightmare, courtesy of the farm’s not so friendly hosts.

Pearl was the wife in the creepy couple of decrepit farm owners and whilst X provided clues to the motivation behind the villain’s thirst for murder, it’s this campy-fun prequel’s main narrative goal to shed light on how Pearl turned into this iconic and unhinged fiend, played in both films by amazing rising star Mia Goth (2018’s Suspiria, High Life).

Ti West’s craftsmanship in both style and substance is evident from the very opening image as he replicates X’s slow push-in from the barn’s doors looking towards the farm’s house. Whilst in the previous film the elegant dolly shot was an ominous glimpse into a gruesome crime scene, here the curtain-like draw of those infamous doors is an up-tempo leap into a musical number set within Pearl’s imagination.

It’s 1918, the Spanish influenza is raging, and Pearl is stuck living on her family farm in rural Texas whilst her young husband Howard is overseas, fighting in World War I. Bound to a suffocating routine caring for her infirm father (Matthew Sunderland) and helping her God-fearing, overbearing mother (Tandi Wright) to keep the farm afloat in such bleak times, Pearl is restless for excitement and adventure.

The young girl’s obsession is to become a movie star like one of the pretty girls in the pictures that she sneakily watches every time the need for provisions requires her to travel into town. But whenever she experiences one of her daydream musical fantasies, her stern mother promptly brings her back to reality with soul-crashing impetuousness and to record-scratching effect.

One day, on one of those solitary rendezvous in town, Pearl meets the cinema’s projectionist, played with old-school Hollywood charm by talented up-and-comer David Corenswet (from TV’s The Politician, We own this city). The handsome devil and self-confessed hippie drifter lures the seemingly innocent girl into a private visit of the cinema after hours and shows her the first ever recorded example of an adult film he illegally brought back from France.

Between the seductive allure of her new acquaintance and the prospect of scoring a role as one of the dancers in a traveling troupe that’s holding auditions in the local church, Pearl has her eyes set on escaping the suffocating farm life to follow her dreams of stardom and she is ready to do anything to succeed. After all, early in the film we witness her impale a harmless goose with a pitchfork, on a whim, just to feed it to her pet-alligator Theda, which lurks in the farm’s pond.

That is the first sign of the girl’s wild side but soon enough we realise she’s not going to pull any punches when it comes to freeing herself from the prison she lives in, whether it entails mistreating her disabled father or confronting her controlling mother after the woman uncovers her extracurricular activities in town. Pearl is literally a pressure cooker ready to explode and Mia Goth embodies her to a tee.

It’s no surprise then how the talented British actress serves as co-screenwriter alongside filmmaker Ti West on this stylish prequel. After all her commitment to the X-verse was obvious in the first film where she played both anti-heroine Maxine, one of the porn film actors with a thirst for fame, and the geriatric version of Pearl under a ton of make-up. Here she shines even more in this delirious one-woman show where she does it all: musical numbers, pulpy murder sprees, mating with a scarecrow and a diabolically excruciating monologue.

West does a magnificent job at creating an original piece of work in what often feels like an oversaturated genre. The result is a wonderful, multi-faceted pastiche that echoes Psycho and The Wizard of Oz with a sprinkle of silent movie era, carrying over X’s thematic thread about our obsession with fame and its consequences.

In a cinematic landscape dominated by tiresome franchises and other big tentpole fare based on pre-existing material, it is a pleasure to welcome such a refreshing voice. Pearl is the supervillain origin story we don’t deserve. Get obsessed and by the time credits roll you’ll be begging to watch Maxxxine, X’s sequel and final chapter in the trilogy, which is currently in production.

Pearl is in UK cinemas from 17th March.

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