The average moviegoer doesn’t swear allegiance to a specific film studio: If you went to see The Northman earlier this year, you should be enthusiastic about Robert Eggers, not the fact that his latest project was distributed by Focus Features. And yet the independent studio A24 has sustained a fascinating level of brand loyalty, whereby any film slapped with its logo becomes associated with prestige. (Never mind that no studio has a 100 percent success rate.) But whether you believe the A24 hype is overblown or are an actual card-carrying member of AAA24—a subscription service offering access to its in-house zines, limited-edition merch, and more—there’s no denying the studio knows how to market itself as a tastemaker.
Ten years and more than 100 films into its existence—along with a burgeoning TV empire led by HBO’s Euphoria—there isn’t one characteristic that unites all A24 projects. But it’s certainly notable that, in a pop culture era overwhelmed by reboots and pre-established IP, A24 has continued to prize originality. (As of this writing, the only sequel released in its history is The Souvenir: Part II.) If A24 was ever going to buck tradition, the project in question needed to have some kind of X factor. How fitting, then, that the movie X has marked the spot for the studio’s first horror franchise.
Following an amateur porn production on a rural Texas farm in 1979 before the cast and crew are brutally picked off by an unassuming killer, X harkens back to the grimy slashers of yore—especially, unsurprisingly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At the heart of the film is a fascinating dual performance from Mia Goth, who plays both aspiring porn star Maxine Minx and elderly farm owner Pearl, who is responsible for the ensuing bloodbath with the help of her doting husband. (Obviously, Goth is layered in heavy makeup and prosthetics as Pearl, to the extent that I didn’t realize it was her until the closing credits.) For Pearl, watching the porn stars do what they do best doesn’t offer any voyeuristic pleasures—it only evokes murderous envy of their youth and virility.
Pearl won’t be mistaken for Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, but she makes for an intriguing slasher villain: pitiable in one moment, terrifying in the next. Even so, you wouldn’t come out of X expecting the character to receive the prequel treatment. But moviegoers who saw X when it came to theaters in March were treated to a teaser at the end of the film for Pearl: an origin story bringing the killer back to a time when she actually looked like Mia Goth. Best of all, horror fans wouldn’t have to wait long for the follow-up, because Pearl was set to come out later in the year.
Interestingly, the prospect of a prequel didn’t materialize until writer-director Ti West spent two weeks in mandatory quarantine prior to shooting X in New Zealand, which gave him plenty of time to kill; no pun intended. (Goth provided her own input on the character, receiving a cowriting credit on the prequel.) After sending the script to A24, West got the go-ahead for Pearl, which was secretly filmed back-to-back with X. The whole situation felt very on-brand for the ever-hip studio: Rather than carefully craft a horror franchise, the studio green-lit one born out of lockdown-induced spontaneity. As West told the Los Angeles Times: “We joked that the most A24 thing we could do with this movie is make two of them.”
With the exception of its title character and setting, Pearl, now playing in theaters, stands as a stark contrast to its predecessor. Whereas X embraced a grindhouse sensibility rooted in its ’70s influences, Pearl has the Technicolor splendor of films like Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz, the latter of which also inspires a ridiculous sequence in which Pearl gyrates atop a scarecrow until she has an orgasm. (OK, maybe there are some similarities to X.) Like Maxine, who saw porn as a way to elevate herself into stardom, Pearl imagines a better life for herself outside of her family’s farm, where she takes care of her father (Matthew Sunderland), who uses a wheelchair, under the judgmental eye of her domineering mother (Tandi Wright). Pearl’s sense of confinement is further exacerbated by everything that’s happening in the world: It’s 1918, a period when the deadly Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I.
Pearl’s only reprieve from monotonous farm life are her trips into town running errands and visiting the local cinema—a transportive experience that fuels her dream of one day becoming a dancer on the big screen. (Knowing that she will still be stuck on that farm some six decades later adds a melancholic note to the proceedings.) Of course, viewers familiar with X will already be aware that there’s more to Pearl than wide-eyed wonder at the power of moving pictures: She’s also got a pretty vicious mean streak, driven by her own insecurities and desire to be loved. But while Pearl does rack up a decent body count, the movie is less a conventional slasher than a harrowing character study of a troubled individual teetering on the edge of violence before she inevitably snaps.
As a stand-alone film, Pearl is anchored by a career-best performance from Goth, who imbues the character with glints of humanity when Pearl isn’t feeding animals and human body parts to the farm’s resident alligator. (Naturally, the burgeoning cinephile names the gator Theda after the silent movie star Theda Bara.) But as part of the larger universe that West is molding, Pearl channels the same anxieties that bubbled to the surface in X: the fear of living an unfulfilled life with the distant promise of something greater, and how movies can offer a tantalizing escape.
To that end, West is bookending the impromptu franchise with MaXXXine, a seemingly straightforward sequel to X that follows Maxine in Hollywood during the VHS boom of the 1980s. Given what transpired in the first two films, it’s safe to assume MaXXXine will feature era-appropriate pop culture influences—the use of Animotion’s “Obsession” in the first teaser is a nice touch—while introducing a new killer to take over for the dearly departed Pearl. As for Maxine, it appears her near-death experience making X’s movie-within-a-movie has done nothing to quell her ambition of being a star.
And just like that, A24 has not only its first horror franchise, but its very first trilogy. The swift pace of the franchise’s conception is rather uncommon; then again, the studio has already developed an industry-wide reputation for thinking outside the box. It’s hard to imagine A24 is suddenly going to get sequel-crazy when the studio’s unofficial mission statement is, per cofounder Daniel Katz, “There’s gotta be a better way.” But in fostering West’s vision for a rapid-fire trilogy looking back to bygone eras of cinema, A24 has continued to push the envelope for what can be achieved in contemporary moviemaking. Stanning a film studio and paying a subscription fee for merch access might be a bit much, but 10 years since it was founded, there’s no denying that A24, too, has that X factor.