2022 has been a stellar year for the horror movie genre. After years of a creative drought in the genre, this year has seen some of the best movies and tv series that aren’t just entertaining but profitable. From Jordan Peele’s terrifying portrayal of otherworldly beings in Nope to the sweet nostalgia of actual slasher films in Bodies Bodies Bodies, it’s hard to argue what exactly has led to this revival. Whatever the case, the standouts within these films are A24’s body of works this year, X and Pearl.
A24 is no stranger to greenlighting some of the best horror stories, from Midsommar to Hereditary. However, this year’s standout films, X and its surprise prequel Pearl aren’t just riveting to watch. They’re memorable. The first movie released, X, had a mere budget of $1 million and ended up making a worldwide $14.5 million, marking it as an undeniable box office hit. The prequel that was released later, Pearl, the prequel that was released later and was reportedly made in only two weeks, had a similar budget of $1 million and ended up earning $9.4 million.
The plot of X follows a group of young actors who set out in rural Texas to film an adult film at the house of an elderly couple but soon find themselves being hunted down by their hosts, especially the jealous Pearl, who takes revenge on the crew. The film follows the typical slasher-horror plotline but dissects the tropes in a new and exciting manner. Pearl’s envy of the youth of her guests and their indulgence in their pleasures is explored deeply, and the film undoes many of the typical horror tropes we’ve seen. X is not just a straightforward slasher. It’s the director Ti West’s love letter to the genre. And what solidifies its presence in modern horror is the prequel, Pearl.
Pearl follows the history and life of X’s antagonist and how she came about to be the way she is in the movie. Set in the same house and setting except for many years before, it establishes Pearl’s history and how her madness has come about. As a result, and arguably, for many fans, Pearl becomes less of a slasher horror, and more of a study of turmoil as the main character spirals more profoundly. It also connects the two movies by showing how Pearl and Maxxine reflect each other, with one lamenting her youth and seeing her former beauty in the other.
Both films establish Mia Goth, who shockingly plays not just the main characters in both movies but also the old and frail killer in X, as a force to be reckoned with. A24’s had some great horror films in previous years, but X and Pearl are certainly leading the revival of slasher horror. But the off-the-rails plots of both movies reveal a much more significant aspect regarding female representation in slasher horror. It explores the use of the female body in horror films through the “female victim” perspective. A crucial element of many early slasher films was the use of female bodies as simultaneous objects of desire and victims, culminating in the idea of the “final” girl. From Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Scream, the final girl always had one thing in common: she was the morally right, “pure” character with predominantly masculine traits who ended up getting away in comparison to her more promiscuous, feminine counterparts.
In X, we find a homage to these old-school slasher films with a twist that makes a more significant point: the promiscuous girl survives while the morally upright one dies. Moreover, the villain of the entire movie is someone who longs to become the kind of person her victims are. X turns the trope into itself while simultaneously painting a picture of mirrored characters, where Maxine sees herself in Pearl and vice versa. However, X feels like it misses its mark a little. It relies on the audience to feel repulsed by the notion of an elderly person having desires, which feels counter-intuitive to its use of the desirable traits of the “final girl” being her saving grace. By holding desire up on a pedestal while attaching a negative notion to its combination with age, X almost seems to be arguing against its thesis.
On its own, X would have been a missed mark, a mere “what-if” of a good slasher film. But it’s Pearl that becomes its saving grace. In fact, on the surface, Pearl is an afterthought. The movie took two weeks and didn’t have the same level of gratuitous violence and sex that made the first one popular. The film certainly solidifies the connection between Maxine and Pearl, who come from ultra-conservative families who disapprove of their goals to become famous in one way or another. And it creates a beautiful juxtaposition of the two: one gets away, and the other doesn’t. Unlike Maxine (who shouts, “I’m a star! The whole world will know my name, I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” at a shaking Pearl at the end of X,) Pearl’s journey is what could have happened to Maxine. It’s the alternative reality behind the mirror. The buildup of Pearl’s darker intentions is also subtle, as her mother (played by Tandi Wright) tells her: “Malevolence is festering inside you.” The audience is almost forced to empathize with this killer-in-making, making us understand where exactly this resentment comes from and shedding new light on X.
The film employs an unnatural and warped perspective, such as the Technicolor look of the film itself or the way it abandons realism to show us exactly what is going on in Pearl’s head in the many sudden instances of garish violence. It doesn’t provide a continuous storyline for X but adds much-needed depth to the sequel. And unlike many prequels, it can be watched alone; arguably, it should be managed alone.
In X, we get a fun call-back to slasher horror films we watched with the added subversion of tropes. Finally, in Pearl, we are given a much-needed revival of a stagnant genre. With a possible third film coming up in the installment titled “MaXXXine,” the next few years will undoubtedly be exciting for the horror genre.
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