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With Pearl, director and writer Ti West managed to create a duology of horror films loved by critics and audiences. However, does this second film in a soon-to-be trilogy stand on its own? Or do the expectations of being a prequel derail it? Does Pearl prove a worthy successor to X?

As someone who is a fan of Ti West, I can answer that simply; Horror fans feast this year. Pearl is a movie that will stick with you long after the upsetting credits sequence.

Theatrical poster for 'Pearl' (2022)
The stunning poster for Pearl (2022).

Pearl (2022)

Director and writer Ti West (House of the Devil) strikes horror gold twice in one year in his X follow-up, Pearl. Pearl is a gothic slasher film that serves as a prequel to X. The movie explores the life of a younger Pearl, X‘s murderous biddy, against the 1918 outbreak of Spanish Influenza and the first World War. Pearl struggles with her desire to leave the family farm and be a star. She is under the thumb of her domineering german mother, infirm father, and has a husband who is off fighting in Europe. However, Pearl’s life may take a turn through a meeting with a film projectionist and news of an audition for dancers.

The film stars Mia Goth (Suspiria), who co-wrote the film’s concept with Ti West during the production of X as the coronavirus outbreaks was in full swing, as she reprises the role of Pearl from X with significantly less make-up. The film also stars David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland, Emma Jenkins-Purro, and Allistair Sewell.

Screenshot from 'Pearl' of Mia Goth as Pearl, staring at the camera with a pained smile.
Pearl’s devastating and haunting smile, as delivered by Mia Goth.

What worked with Pearl?

There is a lot to love about Pearl, and in many ways, the prequel is more surprisingly ambitious than X. Pearl, at its best, functions as a companion to X, not necessarily as a prequel that establishes story elements, but rather in themes. That is not to say the film is overly beholden to what came before it, either. The film cleverly evokes the pandemic-era anxiety with the historical Spanish Flu and weaves a pandemic into the story that feels modern but does not overwhelm the rest of the film. The film rhymes with its predecessor in several ways, such as attitudes toward sexuality and pornography, ambition and violent escapism, and even down instances of dialogue. Like Ti West’s earlier collaboration with Mia Goth this year, the film has that x-factor.

“The X-Factor”

Speaking of Mia Goth. Goth is delightful in X as an elderly Pearl and Maxine Minx. However, the way she is unleashed as the young Pearl in this movie is one of the most impressive performances I have seen in a film this year and maybe in the past few years. She is frightening, ambitious, beautiful, terrifying, tragic, charming throughout, and utterly carrying the film. That is not to say that the other performers do not pull their weight, but compared to the role of Pearl, there isn’t as much to do, and they’re better off standing out of the crossfire as Mia Goth decimates the audience. A five to six-minute monologue in the film’s climax featuring Pearl laying bare her sickness and sadness floored my wife and me.

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Pearl is also a visually stunning film, down to the technicolor-era trappings of title cards and supernaturally bright colors. Ti West knows his way around a camera, and Eliot Rockett’s cinematography provides a beautiful combination of old-Hollywood visual language with some of Ti West’s usual bag of tricks and some of his go-to editing techniques. Zooms, in particular, carry a terrifying power in this film.

The sumptuousness of the color also works well with the film’s period details, such as costuming and the music by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams. Horror films can sometimes appear overly dark or dingy, but Pearl avoids this by embracing a look of old Hollywood just as X embraced a grind-house grit.

Screenshot from 'Pearl' of Mia Goth as Pearl and David Corenswet as The Projectionist watching a movie.
The Projectionist (David Corenswet) establishes some thematic unity between Pearl and X.

What didn’t work with Pearl?

As much as I loved Pearl, two things temper my appreciation. I think the film filling the role of a prequel to X does it a slight disservice and results in some minor problems. As a prequel to X, the film must line up Pearl’s story with the Pearl of the 1970s. It can be rough stitching at times. For the most part, the film is a success and rhymes with its technical sequel, but other times the threads and loose and frayed. Namely the role of Howard (Alistair Sewell) in the events that are to come in Pearl’s future.

Also, because there was an alligator in X, there must be one in Pearl. These kinds of checklist moments are acceptable, but something I feel also limited the film a bit compared to X. X succeeded in surprising me in some ways that Pearl simply could not because it is a prequel.

Secondly, my other criticism of the film is that Mia Goth’s Pearl so thoroughly devours it that it misses opportunities to explore the surrounding characters. In many ways, the movie sacrifices the extended cast on the altar of Pearl at the expense of a richer characterization. My complaints most derive from two characters: The Projectionist (David Corenswet) and Ruth (Tandi Wright), in that we get some tantalizing glimpses into deeper, richer characters. Frustratingly, these developments are cut short, so the characters suffer for it. Particularly the stern Ruth, whose story seems to run as deep and intertwined with Pearl’s, we do not get to explore. It is less so for The Projectionist, but his scenes reveal an interesting thematic connection to X. I would have loved to see that expanded.

Screenshot from 'Pearl' of Mia Goth as Pearl, looking at an unnerving scarecrow.
The film’s scarecrow sequence is haunting.

Final Verdict on Pearl (2022)

2022 is an excellent year for horror fans as Ti West has delivered two of the most substantial horror projects of the year in X and Pearl. Ti West’s latest film is wholly subsumed by the charisma and presence of Mia Goth. While some of the necessary but perfunctory prequel elements are admirably handled, the strain of working within the confines of future events can take its toll on the film. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Pearl is distributed by A24 and produced by Mad Solar Productions, Little Lamb, and Bron Studios. The film’s runtime is 102 minutes and can currently be seen in movie theaters.

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We would love to hear your thoughts on the movie in the comments if you’ve seen Pearl. Enjoy the review? Check out our other horror reviews here on Haunted MTL.

Want more Pearl? (Sponsored)

Have you seen X (2022)? If not, consider picking up a blu-ray before you see Pearl in theaters. Use our special Amazon link to add to your movie collection and help support Haunted MTL.

David Davis is a writer, cartoonist, and educator in Southern California with an M.A. in literature and writing studies.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, Cuckoo Clock of Doom

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Named for the 28th installment of the original book series, The Cuckoo Clock of Doom has the least in common so far with its source material.

Thankfully, the story isn’t negatively impacted by this. I can honestly say so far that these episodes just keep getting better.

The story

After the last episode’s explosive ending, I’m sure we were all more than a little worried about James. I for one was worried we were going to have an example of the Bury Your Gays trope on a kid’s show.

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Cover of R.L. Stine Cuckoo Clock of Doom

Thankfully, that’s not the case.

We go back in time again to Halloween night, and this time we see what James was up to.

Mostly he was up to trying to flirt with his crush. Everything seems to be going well until James lies about being interested in football.

He tries to leave the house, but instead finds himself back at the basement door when Isaiah is trapped and the cuckoo clock is going off. James then shows a remarkable amount of genre savvy and tries his best to escape the house. Each time he does, we see another version of him walking away.

Eventually, he devises a plan to break the clock at just the right moment, but not before he gets some intel on his crush’s favorite team so he can score a date.

Back in the real world free of the time loop though, James finds that he has far more worries. Every time he tried to escape the house, a duplicate version of him was created. And all of those duplicates are waiting for him.

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Back at the Biddle house, though, there’s a surprise waiting. One of the James duplicates has brought Harold Biddle a box. A ventriloquist dummy-sized box.

An empty box.

What worked

The effects of this show so far have been wonderful. When the other characters hit a James duplicate, it doesn’t just die. It explodes in a Nickelodeon-style wave of slime. This is just fun, and I’m kind of sad there doesn’t appear to be more of the duplicates around.

I mean, I wouldn’t rule it out.

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Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

Did I mention that these duplicates appeared to smell like watermelon Jolly Ranchers when they exploded? That was a visceral detail that was both alarming and terrific. They could have smelled bad. They could have smelled like rotting plants or people. But no, they smell like candy.

Of course, the characters continue to steal the show. Margot and Isaiah could be said to be the main characters, but everyone comes into this with main character energy. They are all funny, all capable, all smart. And they all seem to care about each other.

I loved that James and Isaiah talked about how they were feeling. I think it’s important that we’re modeling that for young men. They talked about what was bothering them, and they made up.

Finally, though, we have to talk about Justin Long again. His acting in this just keeps stealing the show. He dances like a cartoon and jumps from joyful to violently furious at a moment’s notice. The character doesn’t know how to act, and watching him fail to act right in front of people never fails to make me laugh.

What didn’t work

I honestly can’t say that anything didn’t work in this episode. But there is something about the show that I, at least, don’t like.

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There’s no real blood or gore. There’s more blood when I eat an actual jolly rancher because I always cut my tongue on them.

Now, this show is pretty clearly not for kids and young adults so there’s probably not a lot of need for too much gore and violence. But if the bloody stuff is more your style, like me, the lack of it might disappoint you.

Fans of the Goosebumps books will know that everyone ended with a twist. And the show so far has been no different. And the ending of this episode has been the best so far. The tension of Margot’s mom’s impassioned reaction, blended with the revelation that Slappy is somewhere in town is just too much. I can’t believe we’re only three episodes in and I am this invested. I hope you are too.

Viewer beware, I suspect things are going to get a lot worse for our characters before they get better.

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4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps, The Haunted Mask

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Episode two of Goosebumps was honestly more fun than the first. It was dark, funny, infuriating and wonderful. Best of all, it has a killer twist ending.

Let’s discuss.

The story

Based loosely on the 1993 story of the same name, The Haunted Mask begins sort of partway through the first episode.

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Cover of R.L. Stine's The Haunted Mask.

We’re introduced to a character we haven’t seen much of so far, named Isabella.

Isabella’s life doesn’t seem great. She’s all but invisible at school. She is responsible for taking care of her little brother. It seems like her only real joy is bullying people online. She was the person who tried to get Allison’s party canceled by sending the invite to her parents. Why? Because she is a very unhappy person.

Despite trying to get the party canceled, she decides to go anyway. At the Biddle house, a voice calls her down to the basement. There, she finds a mask.

The mask inspires her to do wild things. She wanders around the party, flirting with everyone. And she has a great time.

Several days later, after Isaiah breaks his arm, Isabella brings an expensive drone to school to get shots of the football team’s practice. Unfortunately, Lucas breaks it fooling around. And Isabella, tired of being ignored, says some awful things to him.

When her mother grounds her because she took the drone without asking, the mask compels her to do some awful things.

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What worked

I would first like to talk about the storytelling structure in this season. It appears that we’re going to be getting the events of Halloween night multiple times, from multiple points of view.

Ana Yi Puig in Goosebumps.

I love this structure. It’s unique, and it allows for more mystery in a shorter period. It’s also more complex, showing just how much madness was happening, while just showing one part of the story at a time.

Another thing I appreciated was the evolution of the character Lucas.

On one hand, it’s easy to be angry at Lucas. Even if he thought the drone belonged to the school, it’s still kind of a selfish move to break it.

But Lucas just lost his father. We don’t know how yet, but we know from Nora that his death caused Lucas to start doing things like jumping on drones and skateboarding off the roof from his bedroom window.

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We all mourn differently. Losing a parent as a teen is awful. So while we can all agree that he’s being a problem, he’s also being a sad kid working through something hard.

And the same can be said for Isabella.

Look, we still don’t know what the adults of this town did to make Harold Biddle haunt them. But we do know that these parents are messing up in all sorts of other ways. And Isabella is suffering from parentification. She’s being forced to play mom at home while being ignored by her classmates at school. Even without the mask, I could see her lashing out and trashing the house.

Finally, I love Justin Long in this series. His visual comedy was fantastic here, as he falls through the hallways. But he also manages to be scary as hell. His creepy smile and jerky movements are enough to make anyone’s skin crawl. I honestly can’t think of a living actor who could have played this better.

What didn’t work

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If I have one complaint about this episode, it’s the music. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great. Every song seems like it’s just screaming what the characters are thinking. Which isn’t really what I’d consider the point of a soundtrack.

Maybe it’s just a curse on RL Stine. None of his projects can ever have good soundtracks aside from the theme song.

Unlike the original Goosebumps series, there were moments in this episode that did startle me and unnerve me. Which is wonderful. And while it’s still clearly for kids, it’s something anyone can sit down and enjoy. I’m very excited for the rest of the season. But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

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Movies n TV

Goosebumps Say Cheese and Die

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Released in 2023, Goosebumps is the latest in a line of content based on the insanely popular children’s book series with the same name. And if you’re here, I’m guessing I don’t have to tell you a lot about Goosebumps. Most horror fans are at least passingly aware of the colorful covers, dark plotlines, and surprise twist endings. Some of us even have a few of the original books lying around.

For nostalgia.

Cover for Say Cheese and Die, Goosebumps number 4.

With so many good and bad versions of the original stories floating around, I was unsure how to feel about this brand-new series. I was sure, however, that I had to watch all of it. Especially with the infamous Slappy appearing so prominently in the advertising.

So, how was the first episode?

The story

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We start this episode with a flashback to 1993, and a young man named Harold Biddle. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. He comes home from school and goes right to the basement. There he starts writing some concerning notes in his journal. This is interrupted when a fire consumes the basement, killing him.

We then flash forward thirty years to the real start of our story. The Biddle house has just been inherited by a man named Nathan Bratt, played by the delightful Justin Long. He adores the place but is less than thrilled when a bunch of teens crash it for a Halloween party.

The teens end up not being thrilled either.

Now we come to our real main characters, Isaiah, Margot, Allison, and James. It is the four of them that planned the ill-fated party.

Zack Morris in Goosebumps

While in the house, Isaiah finds a Polaroid camera. He starts taking pictures of his friends, only to find that they don’t come out right. One of them, Allison, shows her on the ground in the woods, terrified for her life. Another shows Margot in a panic next to a snack machine.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he eventually sees both of the girls in those exact situations. The real trouble comes when Lucas takes a picture of him, and it shows him on the football field, horribly injured.

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All of these near-death experiences seem to be caused by the flaming spirit of Harold Biddle. And it soon becomes clear that the adults of the town likely know more than they’re willing to tell about what went down at the Biddle house thirty years ago.

What worked

For someone who grew up with the series, and is therefore of a certain age, the first scene of the episode was a lot of fun. It oozed 90’s vibe in a way that’s immediately recognizable to most, and familiar to my generation. Well, insomuch as wearing flannel and coming home to an empty house is the pinnacle of being a 90s kid.

It was also fun for the constant references to books in the original series. Blink and you missed them, but I saw the Cuckoo Clock of Doom, Haunted Mask, and Go Eat Worms. These make sense, as they each have their episode this season. But I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know in the comments.

That was a lot of fun for someone who grew up with the series. But it wasn’t so constant and all-consuming as to distract from the story. Someone could have never read a Goosebumps book in their lives and just enjoy this episode of television.

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More importantly, younger viewers can watch this and feel like it’s for them. The main characters aren’t the parents, they’re the kids. And it’s clear even in this first episode that, even if it was the grownups who caused this horror, it’s going to be the kids that fix it.

This is a series that is for kids. And that’s great. It’s introducing a whole new generation to a series in a way that feels like it can be theirs just as much as it was ours when we were kids.

What didn’t work

All that being said, the story also felt a little dumbed down. A little too predictable. There was one line that particularly irritated me in this regard. When Nora goes to see Isiah’s dad in the hospital, she just flat-out says, “The children will suffer for the sins of the fathers.”

Not only is that just a bad line, it’s also a lazy one. It’s awkward and unrealistic. People simply do not talk that way. And we frankly didn’t need this information dropped on us. It was pretty clear during the football game that at least some of the grownups in town were going to be involved with this when we saw Nora recognize what was happening to Isaiah and try to stop the game. Kids are smart. They would have figured this out by themselves.

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It’s also a really tired trope. Freddy and Jason after all, are both killing young people for the sins of their parents. It was a big part of the storyline in Hide. And while I get that this might feel relevant to the next generation who are all paying for the mistakes of Boomers that Gen X and Millennials have not done enough to solve, it’s also a bit lazy. I just feel like, if this is going to be our main story, it could have been a better one.

But this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this episode. Overall, it was a fun start that left me with lots of questions. I’m excited to see where the rest of the season takes us.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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