“I’M A STAR!”
Mia Goth’s psychotic stardom-reaching farmer’s daughter Pearl bends at the waist in her scarlet red version of Margaret Hamilton’s nefarious cyclist Almira Gulch’s high-collared dress in The Wizard of Oz and howls that line from the depths of her soul. Pearl has just attempted a rousing half-imagined bomb-strewn trenches boogie, a kind of flag-waving tap dance made for USO tours. Despite her own fantasized perfection, reminiscent of Jessica Chastain’s similarly patriotic barn-storming part-daydream at the end of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Pearl fails. And she does not take it well, despite the seeming low stakes. This wasn’t exactly a Broadway audition. Instead, it was a try-out for a regional Christmas dance troupe set to perform around Texas. As she’s led from the small church stage by a concerned congregant, the small-time nature of this audition makes Pearl’s wrenching, snot-nosed, outsized outburst all the more tragic, deranged, and yes, camp.
It was also affecting. As she bellowed out this line, my eyes welled up involuntarily. I know. I was as shocked as you are, after morbidly grinning my way through Pearl’s hair-trigger rage and delusional behavior in Ti West’s Pearl, the second installment of the Goth-driven trinity of films that has rapidly earned the designation of my favorite horror franchise. A hefty part of my brief emotional outburst had to do with Mia Goth’s tour de force in Technicolor turn as Pearl, a surprisingly empathetic interpretation of a deranged murderer that should earn her award show nods if any of those crusty committees respected horror as a genre.
The other culprit was that the film, co-written by Goth and West, is an absolutely pitch-perfect maggot-infested demented love letter to not only the Golden Age of Hollywood but its peculiar women characters yearning for elsewhere, whether that elsewhere is fame, fortune, in front of Cecille B. Demille’s camera, caterwauling “I’ve Written A Letter To Daddy,” or over that rainbow. The kind of characters that denizens of camp have gravitated toward since the beginning of cinema: Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson. Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond. Ann Blyth’s Veda Pierce. And yes, Judy Garland’s Dorothy Gale. Yet instead of trilling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” this farmgirl is stabbing victims through with pitchforks. Hey. Whatever works.
For the uninitiated, Pearl is the prequel to West’s earlier 2022 film X (though there are delightful callbacks such as a giant hulking alligator named Theda in a swamp full of victims and their cars, you don’t necessarily have to have seen X to appreciate Pearl). Where Pearl is set in the midst of the 1918 flu—all masks, contagion paranoia, and social isolation, X is pure Deep Throat-heyday 1970s sleaze—all blue eyeshadow, feathered hair, and D-I-Y pornography that’s just missing our 70s porn queen, Annie Sprinkle. X follows a group of notoriety-hungry porn stars and producers as they travel to a remote farm that looks much like the one in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (as does the van they’ve chosen for their sordid road trip). But, why should that glaring red flag stop them—or the addition of the reclusive, skin-crawlingly creepy elderly couple that own the place? Without egregious spoilers, I’ll just say: things don’t go well. Most important, though, is Mia Goth plays two characters: Maxine, the quiet yet driven freckled “fucking star,” and Pearl, the sex-starved withered hag with prior shattered dreams of glory who peers from the upstairs window, wanders around in the night, crawls into the youngins’ beds, and demands a fuck from her similarly haggard husband, Howard, before going on a pent-up rampage. As should be obvious by its title, Pearl finally gets her star turn in the subsequent eponymous film, which goes a long way to humanize the character despite being a compelling embodiment of fears of sexually dried-up aging in X.
While I thoroughly enjoyed X as a thrilling, well-made, Boogie Night-mare, Pearl far transcends its forbearer. X is a devoted tribute to slasher flicks and 1970s horror cinema with throwbacks to not only the aforementioned The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its primary unmistakable inspiration, but The Shining and Psycho. Yet, there’s no shortage of other horror films chockfull of references to these classics. However, a horror film with a dominant The Wizard of Oz influence? You won’t find that much outside of David Lynch’s own Oz obsession.
And Pearl IS overwhelmingly Oz. Even the main title sequence recalls Dorothy’s emergence into Technicolor with a barn door opening to the grand sweeping nostalgic swell of Tyler Bates and Timothy Williams’ score that is straight out of the 1930s Hollywood Babylon studio system days. The exception here is instead of Oz, the barn door reveals that we’re on that same damn Texas Chainsaw Massacre farm again. The one both Dorothy and Pearl long to escape. The Oz-isms don’t end there with bike rides against ominous stormy skies and a particularly memorable romantic straw-sniffing waltz and dry hump with a scarecrow, outfitted in a matching green sack shirt as Ray Bolger in the film.
While Dorothy could rely on a tornado to fling her into another world, Pearl has to do it herself, using gumption and, well, more than a little blood thirst. I suspect Pearl would agree with John Waters when he said of The Wizard of Oz: “I was the only kid in the audience who couldn’t understand why Dorothy would want to go home…It was a mystery to me.” And that dreary old sepia farm with the drably dressed Auntie Em had nothing on Pearl’s stifling and claustrophobic world. Pearl’s parents are pure German-American Gothic with her drawn, overbearingly strict mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) who also knows how to wield a knife when angry enough, and her father (Matthew Sunderland) who is basically in a vegetative state. The family is also incredibly isolated. Their separation from society is partially due to international circumstances—not only the 1918 flu pandemic but World War I, where Pearl’s husband Howard is stationed, along with the corresponding prejudice against German-Americans. Ruth is also responsible for their insularity. Her deranged distrust of the world and “the bug” extends to even Pearl’s wealthier in-laws who drop by to provide them with a suckling pig, which sits, increasingly full of maggots, on the farmhouse porch until Pearl finds some better use of it in an enthrallingly nauseating split-screen dinner for the dead.
It’s no surprise, then, given this environment that Pearl imagines another life. For Pearl, that ticket out is as a showgirl like the dancers in her favorite film Palace Follies. Yet, Pearl’s drive exceeds simple lofty goals as several maniacal dance scenes attest. The film opens with Pearl dreamily staring into a mirror and dancing, imagining herself in black-and-white at the center of a spotlight. With her movements and the lighting, this moment is almost an exact reflection of Bette Davis’s own superbly beserk croaking performance of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Yet, this fantasy wasn’t to last forever. At the prodding of Ruth, Pearl flits down to the barn where she feeds the animals, talking to them about how she’s going to one day get out of there. With her big glassy eyes and distant expression, Goth switches from channeling Baby Jane to Disney princesses, chatting with the animals and gazing off into the middle distance. You almost expect her to burst into song. Instead, she says, “I do love a good audience!”
Yet, Pearl has a few more screws loose than Cinderella as we see after a doomed goose waddles into the barn. Pearl picks up a pitchfork and with great swinging force, sticks it through, carrying it to her gator Theda. Yipes. Pearl’s madness is a slow burn, though, as the audience is introduced to Pearl’s true unbalanced self. Of course, rubbing one out on a scarecrow is a pretty good indication something is amiss. Her mother, while certainly loathsome, perhaps sees Pearl’s antisocial behavior with the most clarity, orating on Pearl’s malevolence, which earns her a decisive shove into the fire. Subsequently, Pearl goes into homicidal overdrive set for stardom and woe to anyone who stands in her way, whether her mother, her disabled father, the handsome yet smarmy “bohemian” projectionist (David Corenswet) at the movie house who butters her up with praise about being as pretty as the girls onscreen, or Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), her bouncy blonde sister-in-law and Christmas dance try-out competitor. “If only they would just die,” Pearl drawls to The Projectionist. “Pardon?” he responds, to which she quickly shakes it off with a brief, “Nothing!”
Unlike most horror flicks where the kills define the film’s emotional apex, whether fear or catharsis, Pearl’s comes in the form of an extended, mesmerizing, tear-soaked seven-minute monologue. After Pearl’s dance audition failure, she is taken home by Mitsy who both Pearl and the audience secretly know made the cut as the “younger and more blonde” X-factor the judges were looking for. Fatally bubbly, Mitsy offers to act as her brother Howard so that Pearl can let out all her thoughts about his abandonment to the war. And well, Mitsy gets an earful that I don’t think she was anticipating. A whole confessional about cheating, murder, and “The truth is I’m not really a good person.” It’s transfixing and terrifying. Goth is absolutely riveting, as the camera stays relentlessly static on her half-turned face, only panning to Mitsy once the monologue is finished. This scene, in particular, was remarkably brave, relying on the strength of both Goth and the script in carrying the audience’s attention. Nearly unheard of in our constantly distracted culture.
It was also the moment that solidified the film’s success as a Golden Age of Hollywood send-up. That type of overwrought monologue, particularly, from an unraveling female protagonist belongs thoroughly to that era, from, to bring her up again, Baby Jane Hudson’s disarmingly childlike rant to her tied-up sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) (“You know, I always wanted everything to be nice, don’t you?”) to Mildred Pierce’s Veda’s class-ascending tantrum to…again…Joan Crawford (“With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls”). In How To Be Gay, David M. Halperin speaks to the specifically gay male pull to this exact latter scene in Mildred Pierce. While I have elsewhere used Halperin’s analysis of Mildred to explore the magnetism of bad cinematic mothers, the attraction to Veda’s position is undeniably relevant to Pearl. Halperin writes, “In Mildred Pierce…it is precisely the daughter’s refusal of the moral upper hand in the argument, and of all family values, that makes her so perversely appealing. She voices a hatred of middle-class domesticity, of a feminine role defined by hard work responsibility, and selfless devotion to family, opting instead for glamour, leisure, wealth, elegance, and freedom from compulsory social ties—the sort of freedom only money can buy. In rejecting all claims of familial piety, and basking in a flagrant, unnatural ingratitude, she flaunts her sense of superiority to conventional bourgeois cannons of morality, normality, and naturalness.” In many ways, Pearl does the same thing. She rejects the family values of the rural farm life, as well as the compliments she gets from ancillary characters about caretaking for her ailing father, and instead, seeks *SHOWBIZ* and well, murder.
Halperin connects yearning for elsewhere and “a feeling of superiority to boring, normal people” to “a noted (celebrated or abominated) feature of gay male subjectivity.” Maybe. And certainly, Pearl is begging to be claimed as a favorite camp anti-heroine. More than that, though, her motivation to leave all this farm bullshit behind for the stage no matter who she has to axe murder strikes me as bigger than that. It’s woefully American. I mean, what is the American Dream, at least one form of it, not this humble house and a yard throwback we’re sold yet increasingly rarely achieve, other than a blood sport that requires plowing over your family—and really anyone else—to get your moment in the spotlight?
Like most American Dreams, Pearl fails at achieving this too. And she knows it. Rather than continuing to strive for her rightful place centerstage, Pearl decides, as she tells Mitsy, “It’s about making the best of what I have.” Of course, that’s not great news for Mitsy. Nor is it for Howard who returns home from the war in the last scene to discover his own American Dream—that other humble home one I mentioned—rotting at its core. Literally. Pearl greets him with a wide lunatic grin, which Goth holds all the way through the end credits; her eyes watering, her mouth quivering and falling, only to be yanked up again. Not only a moment of pure unadulterated unsettling and rewarding camp, it’s also an exhilarating example of, as Halperin describes, “the uncanny terror of a womanliness that breaks through the norms of polite decorum and finally lets go.”