Saturday, November 05, 2022

‘Gory’ tera gaon bada pyaara: slasher queen on the Yellow Brick Road

In my Economic Times column, I wrote about two great new films by Ti West -- X and its prequel Pearl. (Pleased that the print layout for the column, which you can see here, uses an image of Pearl and the scarecrow – Pearl is most unlike Dorothy in this scene, and we definitely aren’t in Kansas any more)

Among the many ways of being an incurable movie nerd, here are two. You might love bright Technicolor movies from the 30s and 40s, in genres like the coming-of-age musical or the family weepie (or something like Meet Me in St Louis, which combines both). Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you can be a fan of the dimly lit slasher films of the 70s, seedy in content and appearance, with much chopping and chainsaw-ing of limbs as well as some gratuitous pre-carnage sex.

Or, maybe, you like meta-commentary on cinema and how it became a channel for dreams and nightmares, aspirations and destroyed hopes.

I enjoy all of the above, and if someone had told me that a contemporary filmmaker, on a modest budget, had simultaneously shot two movies (set in the same dramatic universe) that covered these genres while also mashing them up, I would have found this hard to believe. But here is writer-director Ti West and his team, notably the wonderful actress Mia Goth. West’s slasher film X (on Prime Video) is about young pornographers running afoul of an ancient couple (and an equally wrinkled reptile) on a Texas farm in the late 1970s. The prequel Pearl, set 60 years earlier during the first World War (and another global pandemic), is about the youth of the wizened antagonist Pearl whom we met in the first film. Both are horror-gore movies, broadly speaking, but they are also about the need to get “a ticket out” to a better life; about what the passage of time can do to us; and the empowering thrill of performing for a camera and an audience.

And their aesthetics are breathtakingly different, so much so that it’s hard to believe they were conceptualised and made around the same time, by the same crew. But the visual differences between the films are essential to their depiction of the characters’ frames of mind, the gap between dreams and disappointment to come, as well as a commentary on how the cinematic landscape changed over those six decades.

X is shot in the gritty, de-saturated style of 1970s B-horror (such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has now become a canonised work of the genre), complete with explicit sex scenes that will remind you of the heyday of the unselfconsciously raunchy teen-horror film right up to the Friday the 13th and Evil Dead franchises. Pearl, on the other hand, deliberately employs the dazzling look of the Hollywood musical just as it had started to employ colour stock, most notably with The Wizard of Oz. (Though this narrative is set two decades before the iconic 1939 film was made, there are thematic links or contrasts between the stories of Pearl – who, in one memorable scene, molests a scarecrow – and Dorothy.) It is, first, a film about cine-love and about the desire to become one of those stars you see on the big screen; only after that is it also a horror movie about the birth of insanity in a young woman who realises she will never get a ticket to that distant constellation.

For me, experiencing Pearl a few weeks after X brought urgency and added poignancy to the earlier film. When I watched X, I was already moved by the tender scenes between the old Pearl and her husband Howard, their envy and resentment of the young people traipsing around their property (there is also a lovemaking scene between these octogenarians, which may repulse some viewers but is central to the film’s purposes). But watching Pearl’s backstory in the prequel gave everything a new layer: here is someone who, if the chips had fallen a bit differently, might have left for stardom in Europe, become a marquee name in this exciting new medium – like Vicki Lester in A Star is Born – and had the world at her feet. Instead she must live her life out in the boondocks, memories becoming dimmer with the years, old photos mocking her dreams. And now she has to see these brash, condescending young people (one of whom reminds her of her younger self) showing off their bodies for a new type of movie camera, gaining temporary, underground celebrity through a smutty film.

So what is the real horror of X and Pearl? The overtly gory scenes, the eyeballs being yanked out with pliers, the rotting pig with maggots crawling all over it? The savage killing of people with pitchforks, the cutting of their limbs in loving slow-motion, before throwing them to an alligator named Theda (after Theda Bara, the legendary silent-movie vamp)? All of that counts, of course; you can’t deny those genre thrills. But there is also the horror of wasted lives – a reminder that loneliness and discontentment have always been among the major subjects of horror and noir. “I was young once, too,” says old Pearl to a young woman named Maxine in X (both are played by Goth). “One day, we’re gonna be too old to fuck,” says another character in the same film, making a case for enjoying their porno-movie-shoot as much as they can. Between these two lines is an ocean of desolation and yearning, and that gives these films so much of their power.

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