Ti West has a distinct and undeniable brain for horror, as the creator of well-known works within the genre such as The Sacrament (2014) and House of the Devil (2009). The latter is an iconic Satanic-panic-themed bloody gem that mirrors the style of 1970s and 80s shock-horror films, with a stunning commitment to classic filming techniques and aesthetic style. However, West’s latest work, Pearl (2022), may be set to top them all, overflowing with Golden Age cinematic beauty and a strong sense of claustrophobia.
A prequel to the already budding cult classic also by West, X (2022), Pearl offers an origin story for the disturbing slasher tale that sees a group of young pornographic film-makers terrorised by an elderly couple on a rural American farm, led by the deranged and youth-obsessed wife, Pearl. Co-written by the star of both films, Mia Goth, West’s latest instalment follows Pearl as a young woman desperate to become a dancing star in the movies before emerging as the central monster of X.
Pearl stands out for its innovative use of the horror, slasher, and suspense genres, in addition to its unflinching remoulding of female characters within horror. It rejects the often dry and expected cliches of the ill-fated ‘final girl’, ‘damsel in distress’, or the overused and insulting trope of the ‘dumb blonde’. Only in recent years has horror more widely embraced the concept of a strong or directional female lead (see Midsommar, Men, The Witch) largely untouched by the male gaze, refraining from using female characters and their bodies as sexualised objects existing only as scream-providers or torture porn. Straying away from gendered tropes of the past, West allows his female lead to voice her own chaos, imagining her as possessive of more gender-nuanced qualities that don’t specifically pertain to women – rage, physical violence, cunning, sexual desire. Neither does he indicate a sense of weakness or limitation associated with female horror characters. Instead, we get the brilliantly mad and frustrated Pearl, a woman unafraid of maniacally slashing her way to attempted stardom, with the victims including her own parents.
Born of German immigrants now living on a small Texas farm, Pearl has anything but a stable upbringing. Reeling from the ongoing issues of both WWI and influenza – set against a wartime background of social suspicion of and prejudice against Germans at the time – she finds herself patiently waiting at home for her husband to return from war whilst caring for her catatonically unwell father and work-obsessed, overbearing mother. Seeking to achieve her dreams of escaping small-town life for success on the screen, we see her descent into maddening desperation play out quickly over a series of events that serve dire consequences, notably that of a crushing dance audition rejection, bringing us the hugely iconic line already making its rounds online and across current pop culture: ‘No, I’m a star. Please, I’m a star!’ Exhibiting a number of increasingly disturbing behaviours and personality traits, Pearl’s misguided efforts to actualise her far-flung dreams gradually come to a sickening head (or heads, rather…), rendering her the ultimate axe-wielding queen of 2022/23 cinema so far.
Terrible in nature and necessarily horrific, Pearl is Ti West’s current crowning glory: a glittering, eyeball-popping, scream-inducing vintage nightmare that we desperately needed.
Pearl is out now and available to watch on Amazon Prime