Director Ti West is back with Pearl, a prequel to the horror film X, which released earlier this year. The latter introduced Pearl, the old woman who hungered for sex and youth, and the prequel horror film explores the character’s background, including how she got started killing people all those years ago. While X delivered on intriguing themes involving sex, the obsession with being young, and desire for fame, Pearl feels like a step backwards. It promises to give viewers more insight about Pearl, but the execution is underwhelming, and the film’s message muddled, uncertain of what it’s trying to say.
Set in 1918, 60 years before X, Pearl wastes no time showcasing how miserable the titular character (Mia Goth, who co-wrote the script with West) is while living on her parents’ farm. Pearl’s husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is away fighting in World War I, which is coming to an end, and she’s left alone to tend to her sick father (Matthew Sunderland) and the farm alongside her stern mother Ruth (Tandi Wright), a German immigrant. But Pearl hates the farm and dreams of becoming a dancer in the moving pictures. She believes her luck is about to change when she meets a projectionist (David Corenswet) in town, who encourages her to audition for a dancing part in a show.
Pearl’s origin (also marketed as Pearl: An X-traordinary Origin Story) is unexciting and lacking in tension. It seems more concerned with paying homage to films like The Wizard of Oz with its cinematography and style — even the font is reminiscent of the era in which the horror film is set — than it is with delving deeper into Pearl’s character. To be sure, Pearl’s ambitions are crystal clear: She feels trapped by her life and wants to escape it, and life as a dancer in the movies seems like the perfect way to do so. Pearl seeks the attention she obviously doesn’t get at home, and that is shown throughout the film. However, there is nothing new to be learned from this particular origin story, nor is there any proper buildup towards the character’s violent tendencies. Pearl’s need for attention, stardom, and sex are all apparent in X, and its prequel doesn’t engage with much beyond what the audience already knows about her.
For horror fans looking for a few thrills, Pearl is not the film to seek out. While it does a good job of making its lead terrifying and simultaneously sympathetic, the film can’t get a hold of its meandering plot. The story is haphazard at best, which leaves the final scenes feeling empty and lacking in horror, whereas they could have been chilling and devastating. The film is flat and unengaging despite a few standout scenes and one hell of a performance by Mia Goth, who portrays Pearl with childlike innocence but with anger simmering just beneath the surface. The other characters, especially Pearl’s mother, are one-dimensional, which is a shame because there could have been space to further explore Pearl’s relationship with her mother.
The lack of direction makes one wonder why a prequel about the violent Pearl was made at all. It’s not like the horror film serves any real purpose, especially since it fails to explore its leading lady any further than what has already been revealed about her. Pearl merely floats along to its ending, uninspiring in its execution. For those who may not have seen X, Pearl may be intriguing enough for them to go watch the original film. As both a prequel and standalone horror film, however, Pearl comes up short.