Continuing the countdown of my favorite 2022 movies…
Best Films of 2022
#3a – X
#3b – Pearl
Here’s where I’m cheating to fit 11 movies on my “top ten” list. But given that Ti West’s horror film X and its prequel Pearl were shot at the same time and released just six months apart it seems fitting to pair them.
I credit X with kickstarting my new interest in horror. In the past I’ve made time for well-reviewed scary movies, within reason. I remember wrestling with the decision to see Get Out in the theater before finally giving in because it was clearly dominating the cultural conversation. But that’s a far cry from a slasher movie that owes its biggest debt to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Again, it was great reviews that broke me down. Not only does X have a 94% Rotten Tomato ranking but critics praised the movie’s meta focus on the filmmaking process, something I always appreciate. I figured I could get past my aversion to jump scares just this once.
I knew early on I was watching something special. X‘s opening shot is of a Texas farmhouse — a grisly crime scene, we learn — framed through the doors of an adjacent barn. The barn doors shroud the sides of the image in darkness, giving the impression that the film has been shot in the boxy aspect ratio common to low-budget 70s horror films. Then director Ti West slowly pushes in until the scene fills the full frame.
I was thrilled to see West playing with form right out of the gate.
The film is set in 1979 and follows the small cast and crew of a porn movie who have rented a guest house on that farm as a location for their film. We get more of that square aspect ratio in scenes of their raw footage, as West draws neat parallels between porn and horror, sex and death.
In another departure from typical slasher fare, West spends a lot of time with the characters, exploring their motivations and desires. Mia Goth and Brittany Snow play the actresses and Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi to music fans) plays their leading man. Martin Henderson does his best Matthew McConaughey impression as the film’s director, while Owen Campbell and Jenna Ortega play a couple running the camera and sound. Everyone gets a chance to deliver a nuanced performance before things turn deadly more than halfway through the film.
The villains are Pearl and Howard, an elderly couple who view their guests with a toxic mixture of jealousy and anger. Howard is played by Stephen Ure, while Mia Goth — made unrecognizable in old age makeup — does double duty as the murderous Pearl.
Things go the way they usually go in a movie like this. The surprises come in the delightful ways West frames and edits the action. He utilizes split-screens and stutter cuts, and flirts with the avant garde when employing color and music. And while a lot of people die, the film subverts expectations around who gets to be the “final girl.”
I finished X still buzzing over the amount of fun and cinematic artistry I found in a slasher film. Then came the post-credits scene teasing the surprise release of Pearl, a prequel depicting the origin story of X‘s main villain. Are you kidding me?!
Indeed, West realized he still had access to the sets on the New Zealand farm where he filmed X and figured he might as well put them to use. He teamed up with Goth to write a screenplay exploring Pearl’s backstory and they filmed two movies for the price of one.
Pearl, like its predecessor, is a loving tribute to classic cinema, only this time instead of 70s horror the genre being explored is Classic Hollywood. The bright images, lush score, and technicolor palette hearken back to The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins.
Pearl is set in 1918, 61 years before the events of X. The film follows Pearl as a young woman obsessed with becoming a star but beholden to her strict mother and disabled father. She spends her days working on the same farm she’ll inhabit in 1979, tending to the animals and slowly going mad.
One thing keeping Pearl sheltered is the Spanish flu, a pandemic that mirrors our own and which the film utilizes in fascinating ways. “All this isolation has been enough to make one mad,” says her sister-in-law, played by the wonderful Emma Jenkins-Purro. Who can’t relate to that?
Another character comments on the proliferation of face coverings, saying “It’s hard to know who anyone is nowadays. All these masks people are wearing.” Little does he know the real sickness hiding behind Pearl’s smiling face.
That face is the only special effect this film needs. Mia Goth is a fountain of raw emotion, and she communicates so much pain, sorrow and madness through her mouth and her eyes. Her performance is a mesmerizing blend of tragicomedy and camp, one that should go down as among the all-time greats in the genre.
What I love about both of these films is how they are in communication with each other. It’s hard to finish one without wanting to dive right into its counterpart. And the news that West and Goth are busy working on a third film, titled Maxxxine, which will follow Goth’s X character into the 1980s… well, that just has me giddy with anticipation.
In the meantime, this is one killer double feature.
Well, given our continued aversion to horror films, we are just going to have to take your word on this one.
I guess we know which girl survives X 😜
Interesting reading about these two movies. But as Dana said I’ll have to take your word on these two.
I reflected quite a bit on this post – and your selection of this pair of horror films to feature in your top ten this year. The comparison of the sort of slasher flick I’d never see and pornography is apt. Each has as its purpose something other than art, though an ambitious filmmaker might aim to bring an artistic flair to either genre.
Regardless of how talented the filmmaker, at the end of the film, what a viewer of your typical horror/porn film is interested in is the body count/money shot. You can dress that up in all sorts of fancy camera shots and good acting, but you still have a film that was created for a commercial rather than artistic reason.
The same can certainly be said about other genres, such as action, sci fi, romantic comedies, and so on. However, the difference there is the way those filmmakers are getting audiences into the theaters is not by filming ever more outrageous ways to kill someone. The fact that the Eli Roth school of horror was coined “torture porn” sums it up quite effectively, doesn’t it?
So… why would I want to watch a filmmaker’s artistic rendering of the systematic murder of one character after another when the point of the film is the filming of those murders? Quite simply, I wouldn’t, which is why I have never been interested in watching this sort of horror film.
Now the other genre + films will interest me all day. Jaws is a compelling drama with horrific elements. Get Out the same. Yes, in each of these films, there are characters you care about who are killed, but the killing of those characters is not the point of either film. I had no reluctance to see Get Out as I knew Jordan Peele wasn’t interested in filming creative ways to kill people. He had far loftier topics to explore.
The “meta” aspect of the two films you feature today is certainly intriguing, as is the celebration of classic cinema that enraptures the young Pearl. That, along with the fact that the killings appear to be a bit more understandable (accidental, guilt-ridden, almost euthanasia ;P), might actually get me to eventually consider watching that one. X you can keep!
This is a compelling argument and I can understand your perspective to a point even if I don’t share it.
I guess the bottom line for me is that I don’t see murder and mayhem as materially distinct from jokes, romance, action scenes, etc. After all, nobody is *actually* dying in a slasher any more than two actors in a romcom are *actually* falling in love.
My aversion to horror movies has never been about the content. It has always stemmed from my skittishness about being scared (or startled, more specifically). That’s why I was as nervous watching Get Out as I was watching X. I’m glad I fought through that nervousness because it has allowed me to discover some truly well-made, provocative and entertaining movies.
To me, movies, like TV and music, are a form of escape and entertainment. So, I go to a movie to escape to a world of love or laughter or sometimes sadness (the catharsis of a “good cry”). I simply have little to no desire to escape to a world of violence or horror, and, to Amy’s point, particularly where the objective of the film is to immerse me in that world, no matter how artistically the filmmaker may do so.
It is rather interesting to me why you on a personal level and so many on a societal level seek out escape to a world of violence and horror. I, for one, will continue to pass.
I won’t speak for Clay but am happy to speak for society 😉 Much like people seek out roller coasters (or bungee jumping or sky diving or… ), my guess is that it’s to flirt with the danger in what is perceived as a safe way. Now, there is much more likely actual danger that will befall you from jumping out of a plane than heading over to your local multi-plex, but both experiences offer the participant a chance to test his mettle, feel fear in a controlled situation and come out the other side.
I’m further guessing that the appetite for horror films ebbs and flows with a country’s or society’s current environment. I doubt many citizens in Ukraine have been streaming horror films between bursts of gunfire and bomb blasts, for instance. Of course, that’s just my conjecture and maybe the opposite is true.
I think Amy speaks for me here, too. 🙂 I have often compared scary movies to a roller coaster.
I do think history has shown that lighter fare (musicals, for example) thrives during wartime. But I also know horror movies have been used to reflect and comment on societal trauma. The civil rights battle and Vietnam both inspired classic horror films in the 70s. More recently, you see horror films commenting on toxic masculinity, “me too,” and Trumpism.
And those sorts of horror films (or other genre films + horror) are ones I don’t actively avoid. Movies like Get Out, The Oath, Silence of the Lambs, Zombieland, World War Z, Warm Bodies, Tremors, Alien, Jaws, This is the End, and so on, are about something other than the death count. Those I can agree are worth my time and consideration.
Also glad I captured a bit of the appeal for you, too!
I’d argue that most horror movies, and certainly the best ones, are about something other than the death count, either thematically, artistically or both. It’s a genre that allows for more experimentation due to lower budgets and a niche audience. That often leads to more exciting and creative results than typical studio fare.
An artistic horror movie is still about the death count or the shock/scare factor. Our point is that such movies, without a broader theme (the “plus”) are just not how we want to spend our movie going time, no matter how well done they are.
Sure, I get that. Preferences are preferences. I’m not a big fan of war movies — they’re just not my cup of tea. Some people aren’t into romcoms or animation.
My personal philosophy, as somebody who wants to be not just a movie fan but a true cinephile, is to not rule out watching anything. That’s why I spent a painful 3 hours and 21 minutes watching Jeanne Dielman after it topped the Sight & Sound poll. I think any sane person would choose to watch Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween over that!
You are not seeing Smile, Sream or the entire Halloween series because you are a cinephile. You are doing that because you have come to like horror films as a genre – even when there is no “plus” or they are not critically lauded.
Scream is considered one of the all-time greats, so I wouldn’t lump that in with the recent Halloween movies. Smile, too, was well-reviewed, which is why I decided to see it. And the two movies discussed in this post (X and Pearl) both received mid-90% Tomato rankings and showed up on plenty of top ten lists other than mine.
But regardless, I wasn’t suggesting I only watch critically lauded movies… I’m saying I won’t rule out an entire genre because I think all genres deserve my attention.
You’re right that once I started giving horror movies a chance I discovered I actually like the genre quite a bit, even the less ambitious or acclaimed ones. Halloween Ends was a horrible movie but it was a blast to watch, in a Mystery Science Theater 3K kind of way.