If you stuck around through the end credits of Ti West’s retro slasher X this past spring, you were treated to a campy teaser advertising Pearl, a prequel promising the origin story of that film’s horny, homicidal antagonist gamely played by Mia Goth (who also plays X’s aspiring adult film star Maxine. X is a weird movie). Whereas X drew inspiration from the grainy aesthetic of 16mm 1970s porn/exploitation cinema, the Pearl ad sported a vibrant, Technicolor gloss, Universal-era Douglas Sirk gone feral (or Hammer gone Americana). This also set Pearl up as something of a snarky punchline, a la the parody trailers bridging the Grindhouse features Planet Terror and Death Proof. (Curiously, the Blu-ray release of X has jettisoned the post credits Pearl stinger, which I had hoped to compare to the final product).
But Pearl is much more than a lark. It went into production immediately after X wrapped (and around the time the pandemic set in), and what’s remarkable about it are the ways in which West and Goth (who, in addition to starring, also has a producer/writer credit) inject a genuine sense of pathos into what initially appeared as disposable camp.
It’s 1918, the world at war, Spanish flu spreading, and sexually frustrated Pearl is trapped in a rural Texan farm with her catatonic father (Matthew Sunderland) and stern German mother (Tandi Wright). Pearl’s life sucks and she wants out. She dreams of escaping to the burgeoning motion picture industry, in much the same ways that the optimistic, doomed youngsters of X followed the glittering beacon of indie porn. Despite its lurid marketing (the official trailer includes a quick shot of a guy straight up exploding), Pearl’s body count is surprisingly sparse, the film achingly deliberate in how it chronicles Pearl’s deteriorating mental state. Both it and X are about young people raging against the specter of time; one of the many things I admire about the film is its sympathy for Pearl’s mother, the result of a lifetime of bitter disappointments and compromises that will later inform X’s fixation on the contours and limits of fantasy.
Though marketed as a Marilyn Monroe biopic, Andrew Dominik’s incredible Blonde is very much a horror film, perhaps even more so than Pearl. It’s the most unnerving theatrical experience I’ve had since Inland Empire, and like Lynch’s overwhelming epic finds Southern California a distorted nightmarescape wherein notions of stability and safety are the cruelest fantasy of all. Based on a Joyce Carol Oates novel I haven’t read but am now desperate to, Blonde finds young Norma Jeane (Lily Fisher) raised in a hotel by single mother Gladys (Julianne Nicholson) and a framed photo of Clark Gable standing in for Norma’s father.
One night Gladys takes Norma on a midnight drive while ash and embers from the 1933 Griffith Park fire whorl around them. The Hollywood of Blonde functions an awful lot like the video game series Silent Hill in that it’s a hell constructed from your own subconscious, one only you can really see (note Norma’s terror of billboard depicting a mirror version of herself). Later in the film, adult Norma (Ana de Armas) will rush into a burning building not actually on fire to rescue a screaming infant from an empty drawer; later still she’ll have a conversation with a fetus that recalls the talking Eraserhead creature in P.T. Gynecological horrors abound; Norma experiences two abortions and a miscarriage, the most terrifying of which is shot in night vision and plays like an alien abduction. She’s haunted by an absent father whose letters express only the disapproval and disappointment of her deepest fears. It’s here that the movie’s easiest to dismiss; Norma grows up to become Hollywood superstar Marilyn Monroe, her various marriages a Sisyphean quest for a surrogate father figure that’s only rewarded with abuse and tragedy. Of the post #MeToo films about Hollywood exploitation, Blonde is among the more transgressive and alienating in its indictments.
Runtime: 102 minutes
MPA Rating: R
Streaming: Currently in theaters
Runtime: 166 minutes
MPA Rating: NC-17
Streaming: In theaters (limited); Netflix (September 28)