“You think others won’t notice? You can’t keep your true self hidden forever, Pearl.”
Filmed back-to-back with X, the only cross-over in this “origin story” is Mia Goth, who co-wrote with director Ti West and is magnificent in her embodiment of the demure, unstable Pearl. West continues his blend of horror and period filmmaking, this time drawing inspiration from early technicolour movies like The Wizard of Oz, the vibrant colours of its early 20th century Americana at odds with its tone. Pearl desperately wants to be a star but extended shots of her performative stage smile devolve into an unsettling rictus grin. Even in less obvious moments, West has a skill for allowing the camera to linger a moment too long to be comfortable. Pearl uses the 1918 flu pandemic to draw on viewers’ recent pandemic experiences of fear, distrust and isolation. This allows the audience some empathy with Pearl’s sense of suffocation on the family farm — caring for her invalid father under the yoke of her stern German mother — even as we know that her response is destined to be horrific. My experience with Pearl was much the same as X: its depth may be limited but there is plenty to enjoy in its period detail and atmosphere.
“Alright, that’s enough jabbering. I reckon it’s about high time we cut to the chase and give the people what they want to see.”
Ti West’s horror flick set in 1979 is more than just a throwback — he expertly recreates the visual identity of early slashers, using it is as a tonal palette even as he subverts many of their clichés. For example, the premise of a group of young filmmakers travelling to a remote town to make an adult movie provides a justification for the requisite titillation whilst also undermining the traditional rules linking promiscuity and survival in exploitation flicks. There is no mystery to solve in the killer’s identity since there are so few people on the isolated property and, although X raises the topic of youth and aging, it has little to say beyond the jealousy that gulf invokes. Typically, self-aware horror films swiftly descend into parody but West avoids this, choosing to maintain the enjoyably sinister atmosphere by delivering on gory scares he sets up. The closest analogue is Robert Rodriguez’s modernised yet reverant approach to grindhouse movies in Planet Terror. Fans of the genre will enjoy the period detail — particularly in distinct visual style of the film-within-a-film — but it’s unlikely to appeal to those without an interest in either slashers or filmmaking (and ideally both).