Mia Goth in a still from Pearl. Photo: Christopher Moss

Writer-director Ti West recently paid tribute to the slasher cinema of the ’70s and ’80s with his blood-soaked horror satire ‘X’. This March-released film, which laced its grisly storyline with pointed social commentary, proved as thought-provoking as it was cringe-worthy; and boasted an impressive leading role from actress Mia Goth, who did double duty as the lead Max and – under heavy age make-up – Pearl, a pitchfork-wielding octogenarian with a penchant for sex and death.

Now West is back to expand the universe of “X” with a prequel that takes us back to 1918 and explores the origins of poor, twisted Pearl. Again starring Goth (who also co-wrote the film), Pearl takes visual and stylistical inspiration from an earlier era of cinema, weaving specific nods to well-loved musicals like The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins “. his tale of a troubled young woman’s descent into insanity.

Stuck on her parents’ farm during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic, Pearl lives under the tutelage of her stoic, repressive mother (Tandi Wright) while she is forced to care for her ailing, wheelchair-bound father (Matthew Sunderland). . Although her husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) is fighting in Europe during World War I, Pearl dreads his impending return and instead dreams of dancing in front of admiring crowds, like the images she sees when she sneaks into the town’s cinema.

Mia Goth in a still from Pearl. Photo: Christopher Moss

After making the acquaintance of a charming projectionist (David Corenswet), he first seduces her by saying he can always projection films for her free of charge, and then shows examples of some of the scantily clad uses of this new technology (a subtle allusion the story of “X”, several decades later). It’s indicative of how bad Pearl’s life is that she sees a guy living in the back room of a movie theater (however charming he is) as a kind of savior.

Despite the projectionist’s reassuring promises to take her to Europe, you don’t have to have seen the earlier episode to know that such an escape is nowhere in sight for Pearl (who spends her time on the farm nursing the occasional wayward geese to eat, so clearly she’s already having problems). The unfolding 102 minutes is a slow ramp down (or ramp up) to inevitability as that realization takes root—for both her and the audience.

Mia Goth and Matthew Sunderland in a still from Pearl. Photo: Christopher Moss

“Pearl” is often shocking in its brutality. The violent scenes carry more weight since they don’t come from a fantasy monster like Freddy Krueger or even a charming psychopath like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, there’s something about Goth’s swinging axes and pitchforks, with her slender frame and hair tied in a bow, that adds an extra element of horror to a story that’s already quite chilling.

While it’s impossible to fully sympathize with the character given the long list of personal issues she’s already having before the story begins (and what we know she’ll do in the next one), Goth still infuses her with enough lived pathos We can’t help but feel terrible for Pearl as a series of disasters sets her on a path of no return.

“Pearl” culminates in a tour de force monologue from the actress, tearing her soul open for another character without the camera daring to make a cut – like the staring eye of an audience that is both mesmerizing and hypnotic is also horrified. It’s a powerful performance that, along with their previous work in “X,” marks Goth as a unique talent to watch, whether in the genre or beyond.

Taken together, “X” and “Pearl” make for a compelling dual feature that features blood-spattered homages to different eras of cinema. Ti West has already made it clear that he would like to see the “X” universe continue. If he continues to use such ingenuity with the form, I know I’ll be there to see it – even as I watch some of it with my hands in front of my eyes.

L“Pearl”: horror. Starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright and Emma Jenkins-Purro. Ti West is directing. (R. 102 minutes.) In cinemas Friday, September 16.

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