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Pearl review – sublime horror prequel exceeds the original in every way

Mia Goth gives a terrifyingly hypnotic, career-defining turn in Ti West's wildly entertaining and colourful confection of a movie

Even if you haven’t seen Ti West’s ‘70s porno-set slasher X, it won’t take long for you to figure out that the eponymous “heroine” of its prequel, Pearl, has something deeply wrong with her. Early on in this 1918-set origin story for X’s big bad, Pearl (Mia Goth) is taken on an ad-hoc first date by a hunky cinema projectionist (played by David Corenswet) whose idea of a good time is to show her an illegal porn film he smuggled over from France. Instead of being understandably put off by this Travis Bickle-like display, Pearl is utterly enthralled, and it’s not long before the feelings stirred up by the viewing have catalysed a wildly entertaining murderous rampage.

Of course, it’s not just a skeevy “stag picture,” as the projectionist calls it, that sends Pearl down this path; in Pearl, West and Goth take their time to deliver a fully realised backstory for a character who could otherwise feel like a cartoon. Goth has, technically, played this role before in X (her other character in that movie, Maxine, will get her own sequel in due course). But without being covered in ageing prosthetics, she’s free to build a new character from the ground up. Though there are a fair few – very fun, very tense – kills, Pearl is much less of a pure slasher than its predecessor, more concerned with its ridiculously effective character work. Granting Pearl a backstory as a young woman abandoned by a husband seeking adventure at war and left to rot with her German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright, terrifying) on their lonely Texas farm, Goth shows us how anyone would be driven loopy by this isolated life of Lutheran abstinence and self-repression.

She’s just astonishing in every scene of this – and this is really her show, not just starring in the X-verse for the second time, but also co-writing with West alongside exec producing – given the kind of performance that is so magnetic that you don’t even realise you’re being hypnotised by it until one of the explosions of violence briefly breaks the spell. Some noise was made around this year’s Oscars about how Goth’s exclusion from the Best Actress race was unforgivable, and though the Academy ignoring horror is inevitable, she deserves to be talked about in the same breath as any of the best performances of the last 12 months (I’d personally put her above all but Cate Blanchett of the actual nominees).

West knows that he’s on to a good thing with Goth front and centre, putting such faith in his lead that Pearl’s central set-piece is nothing gory, frenetic, or sexual (bar some gruesome stuff right at the end, this is a much less explicit film than X), but instead simply a monologue. Delivered over the course of 8 minutes in an unbroken, static shock, Pearl explains to a friend exactly what she thinks is broken inside of her and it’s extraordinary, a wildly risky gambit right in the middle of an ostensible horror movie’s third act that pays off a million times over – I was barely able to breathe throughout it.

Between them, West and Goth clearly have a bone-deep understanding of this character, her twisted but still just sympathetic enough worldview – Pearl’s lonely life is so miserable in all of its Lutheran abstinence and self-repression that it would drive anyone loopy – informing every textual and stylistic choice. Dialogue veers between scary and swoony depending on Pearl’s mood, sometimes reflecting her mania – there really aren’t many three word phrases as abjectly sad as the way Goth delivers “I’m a star!” – other times filtered through her love for the movies. It’s in preparing for an audition that most of Pearl’s actual plot, and related murders, transpire, the magic of the pictures the only escape big enough for a woman and world traumatised by the twin horrors of World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Though never quite going as far back as the era he’s set the film in for stylistic inspiration, West still leans on a lot of old-school technicolour aesthetics, from pastel-painted buildings in town to the vast, painted skies above the farm. These rich colours could seem like an overly obvious choice, jolliness to offset the carnage, but West and DOP Eliot Rockett actually manage to make the pinks, reds, yellows, and blues into disconcerting figures all their own, throwing us off balance so we’re never quite sure if we’re looking through our eyes or Pearl’s.

Though it’s got plenty of nods, both overt and subtle, to X, Pearl stands alone perfectly well and is in fact that rarest of things – a prequel that outdoes the original in every respect. Though it might not scratch the same itch for those seeking a pure slasher thrill (it’s harder to capture that consistent tension when your lead is not a final girl but the killer themselves), Pearl is such a gripping piece of work that it’s impossible to notice, let alone mind, the way it ignores a lot of its ostensible genre’s “rules.” Led by a central performance you’re unlikely to see bettered all year, Pearl is a funny and gruesome confection that you’ll be chewing over for a long time to come.

Pearl is released in UK cinemas on 17 March.

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