It’s very difficult to make modern entries in the camp cinema canon. This is partly because many of the movies that are now considered cornerstones of camp cinema were never intended to fit that definition. Though it sounds like a paradox, the obliviousness of these artists that they were fitting the mold of camp, not to mention the confidence in their creative vision, makes their works feel extra campy. Trying so hard to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle creativity that informed the works of Douglas Sirk, for example, will just result in a pale shadow of the past. But there are exceptions to every rule and Pearl, the new entry in Ti West’s ongoing horror series that began with X, manages to be a terrific modern-day ode to the wonders and core tenets of camp cinema.
Now, this is not to say that Pearl eschews the horror elements of its predecessor, X. There are tons of slow-burn suspenseful sequences in the feature, jump scares abound in the runtime, and our titular lead, Pearl (Mia Goth), eventually finds very gnarly ways to dispatch the people around her. The apex of such grisly demises comes when Pearl chops up her sister-in-law and feeds her to the alligator that lives in a swamp behind her family’s farm. But even with all this graphic violence and unnerving moments, Pearl still registers as much as a loving tip of the hat to vintage camp cinema as it functions as a straightforward horror film.
The camp influences of Pearl are apparent just from the movie’s color scheme alone. Though the story is set in 1918, Pearl’s look is heavily reminiscent of classic Technicolor extravaganzas from the 1950s. In this era, movies embraced color in every way imaginable. It didn’t matter if certain hues didn’t correspond to their colors in the real world, the point was to offer visual spectacle people couldn’t get on their black-and-white TVs. The result was a barrage of features, such as All That Heaven Allows, that engaged in bombastic color choices which would come to define the extravagant qualities associated with camp art.
Pearl fully commits to capturing this visual influence, especially once Pearl gets away from her dreary farm and into the city. Here, even back alleys are coated in luscious colors while rain pipes burst off the screen draped in a vivid pink hue. The production design of Pearl is bursting with radiance and the same can be said for the costumes, namely a deep-red dress that Pearl wears for much of the third act. The lavish quality of these colors, all while throwing any sense of realism to the wind, make Pearl in tune with writer Susan Sontag’s iconic definition of camp: “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”
That affection for “exaggeration” is also apparent throughout Pearl, especially when its protagonist decides to throw caution to the wind and openly embrace her dark side. She doesn’t just push a corpse into a crocodile-filled swamp; she punctuates the act by bellowing out a farewell in French to accompany this demise. A tense mother/daughter confrontation, meanwhile, is full of curt sentences that may never escape the mouths of real people, but sure feel appropriate for the world of Pearl. On and on the list goes, even just confined to elements within the screenplay, of the characters in Pearl opting for wildly exaggerated movements and dialogue. Their behavior just exudes the very foundations of camp.
The inseparable bond between the queer community and camp entertainment has also led to a very specific recurring element in the latter domain: an absurdist depiction of heterosexual relationships. Straight people and the love that consumes them don’t tend to have an easy time in camp entertainment, with productions like Showgirls often depicting heterosexual intimacy in a downright comical fashion. It’s just another way camp entertainment subverts and twists around the norms of mainstream art. So often intimacy between men is mocked, or smooches between women are recognized only for the pleasure of cis-male viewers. Camp, then, often goes in the opposite direction by stripping down heterosexual attraction and making it into a ridiculous spectacle.
So it is with Pearl and one of its most memorable sequences, in which Pearl’s attempt to find a blown-away strip of film from a projection booth leads her to a scarecrow in an abandoned cornfield. After initially just dancing with this scarecrow, Pearl soon engages in sexual intercourse with it, writhing around on its body and moaning in pleasure. It’s an extravagant, darkly comic scene showing how Pearl is sexually repressed and dealing with complicated feelings of being attracted to a new man while her husband is overseas. But it’s also a ludicrous depiction of heterosexual intimacy, the kind that camp cinema is always embracing. Even less overtly comical portrayals of Pearl being intimate with a male projectionist are just a set-up to dark punchlines about how this lady’s romantic infatuations will never work out. Heterosexual longing is just as ridiculed as opposite-sex intimacy in the subversive campy confines of Pearl.
Perhaps most noticeably, Pearl is also focused on a lady protagonist, but not just any lady protagonist. This is a movie about a messy woman, the kind of unabashedly flawed figure that camp cinema loves to rally around. Once again, we see how camp filmmaking is based on bucking the norms of traditional cinema, as the norms of mainstream movies suggest that women have to be prim and proper to even appear in features, let alone be protagonists. Pearl isn’t like that at all as she dances around a farmyard, has blood draped all over her face, and messily sobs once she finally has an ear to turn to. She’s a recognizably human creation, albeit an unsettling one, but she’s also out of the ordinary for mainstream cinema. She is, in essence, a quintessential camp cinema lead.
Pearl’s plight connects to the world of camp filmmaking even through her desire to leave the world of her parent’s farm. Camp cinema has become highly associated with terms like “personal liberation,” a concept that very much feeds into Pearl’s primary desires. Even her eventual murders are a warped version of this concept, as she offs the people who’ve confined her to an ordinary existence or who could jeopardize her trip to stardom. Liberation can take many forms in cinematic narratives, and in the case of Pearl, it’s a twisted manifestation meant to unnerve the audience. It’s also one that, however brutal it gets, feels right at home with the themes and dark sense of humor that often populate camp cinema classics.
Even a big dance number digression in Pearl’s third act, one that combines light dance choreography with a No Man’s Land backdrop, feels like the movie offering up even more pronounced evidence of its camp cinema bona fides. To be campy, you have to show a commitment to being outlandish, breaking away from the norms, and having a love for what others might deem hideous. In so many ways, including how it subverts expectations for what viewers might expect an X prequel to be, Pearl fulfills the qualifications of camp cinema to a tee.