Pearl. MA15+. 103 minutes. Three stars.
This prequel was filmed back to back with X (2022) in New Zealand but the latter film should be viewed first. If X was reminiscent of gritty low-budget 1970s films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Pearl, with its vivid colour and (initially) lush and bright orchestral score, has more of the look and feel of old Technicolor movies and employs old-fashioned cinematic techniques such as wipes and an iris out.
There are a lot of subtle references to The Wizard of Oz (1939) which must be among the top contenders for most quoted and alluded to movie ever.
But we are definitely not in Kansas any more. Pearl's allusions and callbacks to Oz are closer to those in David Lynch's oddball movies than the lighthearted winks and nods we usually get.
Pearl (Mia Goth) is a frustrated young woman. It's 1918, her husband is fighting in Europe, there's a pandemic going on (influenza) and she's stuck working on her parents' farm. She desperately wants to leave and pursue her dream of becoming a dancer.
But her paralysed father (Matthew Sunderland) needs constant care and her German mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) is strict and stern - she makes Dorothy's Aunt Em look like Auntie Mame - and dismisses such thoughts as nonsense. There may be no place like home, but that's not necessarily a good thing.
One of Pearl's few pleasures is sneaking off to the movies, which inspired her to become a chorus girl (talkies were a few years away so maybe the film she watches is being accompanied by a gramophone recording).
But there are signs Pearl isn't simply a put-upon victim - or more charitably, that her repressed and confined life has taken its toll. She sometimes mistreats her helpless father and isn't above killing an animal just for the heck of it. She has a very close encounter with a scarecrow, doing things that Dorothy would never have considered. And that's just for starters.
Mia Goth - who co-wrote the film with director Ti West - is mesmerising in the title role.
The movie projectionist (David Corenswet), a self-proclaimed "bohemian", takes an interest in her. He shows her a pornographic movie (the genuine silent stag film A Free Ride; the glimpses we get are eye-opening) which eventually inspires them to take a ride of their own, if you know what I mean. He tells Pearl about a dance audition taking place for a touring troupe. Although her mother forbids her to go, she turns up, desperate to be chosen, and among the other hopefuls is her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro).
Although the colours and the music at the start suggest this might be a "girl chases and gets her dreams" movie, the darkening score (by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams) and Pearl's edginess don't make for optimism and anyone who's seen X has an idea of what's going to happen.
This isn't a romanticised view of movies and show business like The Fabelmans or a splashily decadent one like Babylon: this is shabby and dark and disturbing and suggests that utter selfishness and even madness are prerequisites for success. But are they enough?
Gore fans get thrown a bone or two, but the film has a lot more to offer than blood. While the film isn't campy there does seem to be a dark sense of humour behind it.
Mia Goth - who co-wrote the film with director Ti West - is mesmerising in the title role. Her intensity reaches its peak in a long monologue and in the final, wordless shot, which lasts into the end credits and is quite unsettling. Wright is also a standout as the harsh mother, damaged in her own way by the cruel blow fate dealt the family.
X and Pearl make a good double bill for the horror buff who wants something a little different. The level of imagination and skill is higher than the budget in both.