Something’s not quite right with Pearl, who wields a pitchfork less like a tool than a sex toy when tending the family farm. Such macabre behavior will come as no surprise to fans of Ti West’s “X,” who met the character in her advanced years, horny and homicidal, killing the amateur adult film crew staying on her property, then feeding their pieces to a grateful alligator. West wrapped that early-2022 horror offering with a trippy teaser for “Pearl,” a stand-alone origin story rendered in the style of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. The trailer suggested something practically avant-garde, with a dance scene, dream sequences and a super-saturated color scheme, but the reality is more mundane than A24 audiences have come to expect.
Whereas “X” unspooled like a backwater “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” homage with a lascivious Russ Meyer streak, this turns out to be a fairly straightforward cross between “Psycho” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?,” with Mia Goth going all-in as a small-town farm girl who’ll do anything to become a star. In short, “Pearl” is the prequel no one asked for to a movie not many people saw. And yet, despite being something of an afterthought, its distinctive look and oddly appealing antihero (picture Norman Bates as Shelley Duvall might have played him) could actually make this the more popular of the two films.
In “X” — which audiences needn’t have seen first — Goth played both the “final girl,” Maxine, and the jealous crone who tried to kill her (though the actor was barely recognizable as Pearl beneath the melting-waxworks old-age makeup). The double casting didn’t quite track in that context: It should have suggested that the elderly Pearl saw something of herself in the younger character, who’d run away from a televangelist father to become an amateur porn performer. But because the film privileged Maxine’s POV over Pearl’s, the latter registered as some kind of nightmare vision — all withered skin and wasted libido — of how Maxine’s life might have turned out had she not left home.
Now, the connection between the two women is made clear, as we learn that Pearl was also raised by ultra-conservative parents who disapproved of her desire to become a Hollywood chorus girl. Turning back the clock from 1979 to 1918, the sumptuously shot and lavishly scored film finds a far-younger Pearl, naive but not necessarily innocent, looking like some kind of demented Pippi Longstocking with her gingham dress and braided hair. Her only real escape from rural tedium is going to the pictures in town. She’d love to star in one herself and nearly loses her mind when well-meaning sister-in-law Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) mentions a local dance audition.
When it comes to being discovered, Pearl is open to practically any shortcut. One day, the projectionist (David Corenswet) invites Pearl up to the booth, where he shows her a primitive stag film, lasciviously suggesting that he’d like to see her in such a movie. Pearl prefers the “Palace Follies,” where pretty blond dancers keep their knickers on, but is flattered by the handsome stranger’s attention. She’s also conflicted about her absentee husband, Howard, who’s been off fighting the war abroad. Pearl’s sexual desires, scarcely diminished by age, were a defining aspect of “X,” which tried to make audiences squirm by implying that old people still crave physical intimacy. Here, the passion Pearl feels is more charnel than carnal.
She’s been killing small animals around the farm for sport, like a good little serial killer in the making. But Pearl’s mom (Tandi Wright) is on to her: “Malevolence is festering inside you,” she says, and though Pearl resents the severe woman’s strict sense of discipline, she’s not wrong. The pond behind the two-story farmhouse has a full-grown alligator in it, and Pearl sees to it that the creature doesn’t go hungry, even going so far as to roll her invalid father (Matthew Sunderland) out to the dock and letting him squirm in his wheelchair. This is a very sick young woman, and yet, West asks us to empathize with her as she pursues her dreams of stardom. That’s not such a tall order — at least, not in the era of “Joker” and “Wicked,” when antiheroes are all the rage.
That’s not such a tall order — not in the era of “Joker” and “Wicked,” when antiheroes are all the rage. Audiences know enough about Pearl from the first movie to realize that she won’t be punished for her crimes, but the nature of the crimes themselves — and her delusions of being discovered so far from Tinseltown — are compelling enough to keep us hooked and increasingly horrified as likable supporting characters fall prey to her increasingly deranged behavior.
The film’s garish Technicolor look is both a fresh aesthetic choice (more fun than the dreary, almost-monochrome look of so many WWI-era movies) and a clue that what we’re watching is filtered through Pearl’s fantasies. At times, West and DP Eliot Rockett abandon naturalism altogether, showing what their unhinged protagonist must feel in the moment, as in the “Wizard of Oz”-gone-wrong scene in which she molests a local scarecrow, or the jumpy bit when Howard spontaneously explodes, as if he’d stepped on a land mine on his way up the front path. The movie could’ve used more of these startling rifts with reality.
It’s not unusual during the rehearsal phase for a director to prepare detailed backstories for their respective characters, the way John Sayles does on all his movies. What never happens, however, is what co-writers West and Goth did here, elaborating such exercises into a standalone feature. Does it add anything to “X’s” mythology? Not really, though “Pearl” does hold up on its own, a fun-house-mirror “Imitation of Life” full of insider winks to horror classics — like that shot of the rear bumper Pearl pushes into the pond, a direct nod to Hitchcock. Here, the psycho not only survives but goes unpunished, as she must to set up the earlier film that took place later. Karma will catch up with her eventually, we know, but in the meantime, it’s sort of a blast to watch her unravel.