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‘Pearl’ is no gem, despite sterling performance by Mia Goth

Horror prequel travels old paths instead of forging new ones

Mia Goth in “Pearl.” (Christopher Moss/A24)
(2 stars)

If the movie “X” could be described as “Boogie Nights” meets “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” then its prequel “Pearl” feels like watching Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” develop a penchant for sadism. Styled like a family-friendly Hollywood western, the opening of the film follows a pretty girl with braids through swelling music and an extended title sequence, but the film fails to deliver the scares its increasingly ominous atmosphere promises.

As viewers of “X” already know, Pearl (Mia Goth) has a fondness for murder. The title character of the new film was first introduced in “X” as a comically decrepit older woman with a murderous jealousy of youth. Once again, she is played by Goth, who was double cast in the last movie as the elderly villain and her young victim. Here, she’s seen without the pounds of old-age makeup but is still going around executing people.

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Helmed by returning writer-director Ti West, who now shares a screenplay credit with Goth, the story — set many decades before the 1979 action of “X” — revolves around the youthful Pearl’s discovery of an unhealthy coping mechanism to handle rejection: murder. As the film gets underway, it’s 1918, under the cloud of World War I and an influenza pandemic, yet with a pristine vision of the ruined farm where the first film took place. Like Pearl herself — full of youth and vitality, characteristics she’ll later come to lament — it’s as if the location has undergone a facelift.

But Pearl’s beauty doesn’t bring her what she really desires: freedom from farm life, and to be “the biggest star the world has ever known.” Her dreams are being crushed under the weight of caring for her disabled father (Matthew Sunderland) and meeting the strict expectations of her cold German mother (Tandi Wright). When Pearl marries, she hopes that her new husband (Alistair Sewell) will be her ticket out. But after he leaves to fight in the war, she must find a new way to achieve her dreams. The golden ticket appears in the form of an audition offered by a church dance troupe, which her sister-in-law (Emma Jenkins-Purro) and a handsome film projectionist (David Corenswet) encourage her to attend.

This campy creation is filled with answers to questions nobody asked, leaving as many Easter eggs as you’d expect from a Star Wars sequel — and all this for a prequel that’s out a mere six months after the original. You might find yourself spending most of the film looking for — and finding — connections to “X,” without any satisfying payoff. A certain gruesome death in “X,” for example, is not enhanced by learning a bit of backstory involving a hungry alligator. Nor does the origin story of the creepy, submerged car in the first film add anything. Sometimes, too much explaining robs a film of mystery.

“Pearl” may not terrify in the way its predecessor did, but one thing remains constant: Goth’s ability to bring to life a character made monstrous by envy. Wearing overalls reminiscent of those worn by Maxine, her young character in “X” — one of many parallels between the two characters — young Pearl is fame-obsessed, believing she deserves more than the world has given her. Through tearful monologues and screaming bouts, Goth almost — almost — makes you feel for this character, despite the fact that she grows up to become a serial killer.

Some of the empathy for Pearl may be driven by the film’s pandemic backdrop, which West and Goth use effectively to create tension, especially within Pearl’s family.

“Pearl,” which the studio A24 has just announced will have a third installment, to be called “MaXXXine,” is a testament to Goth’s acting and West’s ability to transport audiences to different periods of cinematic history. But as a prequel, it never finds its footing, bogging down a potentially fascinating character study with unnecessary details — traveling old paths instead of seeking new ones. “Pearl,” like the version of the character we see in “X,” is stuck in the past.

R. At area theaters. Contains some strong violence, gore, strong sexual material and graphic nudity. 102 minutes.