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FROM THE YELLOW SICK ROAD
Director: Ti West
Screenplay: Ti West, Mia Goth
Starring: Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright
Review: David Stephens
Finally! We’ve waxed lyrical about this delay in previews and other articles, but after hitting US cinemas in September and home media over there the following month, the prequel to X has finally come (legitimately) to British shores. The good news is that it has a decent distribution, so you can (and should) see it on the big screen. Reversing slightly, Pearl originally came about as the lead actress of X, namely Mia Goth, worked on the back story of her villainous role in that film. As she and director Ti West fleshed out the story, the potential for a prequel became clear and when the Covid pandemic hit various productions, they saw an opportunity to continue filming after they finished the 1970s slasher. And so the prequel came as a pleasant surprise to those who loved the gory shenanigans of the first film and now had a chance to explore the earlier history of the most unlikely boogey(wo)man that you could hope to meet. So, we’re ignoring the many “goth-ic” gags that other critics are using and went to Texas.
Opening with extravagant orchestic swirls and a gorgeous establishing scene that apes the technicolour reveal of The Wizard of Oz (1939), we’re in 1918 on a familiar-looking farmstead… if you’ve seen X that is. Pearl (Goth) is lost in dreams of becoming a film starlet and leaving her restrictive lifestyle behind. Her husband is fighting somewhere in Europe, and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Her parents are German immigrants who are proud of their heritage but shun the community because of the War. Her father (Matthew Sunderland) is totally paralysed and needs constant care, something which Pearl’s haughty mother (Tandi Wright as Ruth) relies on Pearl to do, along with many other farm and household chores. But the young dreamer has her head turned by a bohemian cinema projectionist (played by David Corenswet) and the possibility of stardom coming from an upcoming chorus girl audition. Obsessed and repressed, she’s not going to let anyone take her dream away from her…
Like X, Pearl is a multi-layered genre fever dream that combines several styles and has many horror influences. From the opening shot (with the old-style cinema title fonts) to the bloody and protracted axe murder, there are a number of references to classic films that horror and general film fans will pick up on. The vibrant colour scheme and costume designs are pure Wizard of Oz, as is Pearl’s “aw shucks” general demeanour and naivety. Although, we don’t remember the original Dorothy french-kissing the scarecrow and then dry-humping him! The grotesque eccentricities and macabre situations feel lifted from American gothic classics such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). And the murders and aftermaths are extremely reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers, especially the disposal of a car and body in the swamp which mirrors a similar moment in Psycho (1960).
Those expecting another nuanced slasher like X may be surprised at the slow-burn and character-study element of “Pearl”. It’s almost like a periodic female version of Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), in that it shows the slow-but-understandable descent of a broken person into becoming a psychopath. And … bloody hell!! … Goth is fantastic in this film. Who would have thought that she would become such a respected and modernistic “scream queen”? But she completely owns it here. Child-like at times and extremely likeable, you root for her as she is belittled by her mother and just wants to escape her cage-like existence by living out musical fantasies. This makes the animal cruelty, creepy taunting of her father, and eventually mad-as-a-box-of-frogs behaviour all that more shocking. There’s an amazing moment where she lets it all out in a (nearly) one-take monologue that lasts for eight minutes, and she never misses a beat. Whilst festivals and fringe film critics have applauded the actor, it’s a travesty that none of the mainstream film academies hasn’t at least named or recognised her for this performance.
As good as Goth is though, this is also some of West’s best work. The sweeping soundtrack, primary coloured sets (although he did try to get A24 studios to greenlight the film in black-and-white), classic screen wipes, and broad cinematography all point to a great appreciation of filmmaking. As does the arthouse take on extreme gore at the end and some of the scene transitions. Credit is also due to the supporting cast as well. Tandi Wright is excellent with a multi-layered performance as the mother, with one particular outburst suggesting that Pearl’s problems are quite possibly genetically based and may be inherited. Emma Jenkins-Purro plays Mitsy, Pearl’s sister-in-law and quite possibly the only blameless and innocent character in the whole film. She gives a lovely, understated performance that leads to an extremely tense sequence later in the proceedings along with an extremely violent outburst that feels extra chilling.
Just like X, there is some dark humour mixed in there as well, from the teasing sequences with “Theda” the Crocodile (named after actress Theda Bara by our heroine) to the cheesy and manic dance that Pearl performs in the audition after a slow and dramatic build-up. The final shot is also distinctly unnerving with an unblinking stare and a pained grin that provides the perfect capper for a unique experience and seamless link to the same character in later years. Unlike some recent horror trilogies that we could name, this second entry is superb and means that we can be fairly certain that Goth and West will deliver the goods again in the upcoming Maxxxine, which will be the trilogy closer. After the 70s sleaziness and this forgotten “Oz”-like timelessness, we should be getting another shift in horror with the 1980s and the video boom. But anyway, any film that Martin Scorsese calls “mesmerising” is alright with us. Occasionally heart-breaking, immaculately acted, sometimes funny, often disturbing, this is another great horror for grown-ups. See it on the big screen if you can and just be glad that Goth fully supports the genre.
Supported by a mesmerising performance from Goth and solid work from the rest of the cast and crew, this matches “X” as being the pinnacle of West’s genre work. A homage to the Golden Age of Cinema and Hitchcock thrillers, this isn’t a gory slasher but a disturbing and funny character study of a psychopath that you’ll love. Just X-cellent and we can’t wait for “Maxxxine”.
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