Ti West’s Pearl premiered at the 79th Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival to considerable critical acclaim. The prequel to West’s well-received ’70s slasher X, Pearl stars Mia Goth as the titular character. Having already played the older version in X, Goth continues to show her versatility as a horror icon, delivering another compelling and engaging performance with even more bite. Rewarded for their consistency and effort, Goth and West will get their trilogy, as A24 announced a third and seemingly final film in the series, MaXXXine.
It’s impressive and honestly encouraging that a singular director such as West gets the chance to helm a trilogy of his own. However, MaXXXine‘s announcement is more of a triumph for Mia Goth, whose performance has nearly single-handedly carried the soon-to-be trilogy. With an expressive face and a unique gift to portray decisiveness disguised as naiveté, Goth is a horror icon in the making. From Marrowbone and A Cure for Wellness to Suspiria and Pearl, Goth’s ability to play a horror leading lady is nearly unparalleled. Her work is raw and honest, vulnerable yet intense, alluring yet somewhat discomforting. Goth is the embodiment of the modern horror icon, and she knows it.
The scream queen has gone through many iterations. She was the damsel in distress in the early days of horror before turning into a cautionary tale as the genre evolved. The ’70s and ’80s saw her become the ultimate paragon of virtue at the height of the slasher frenzy, eventually transforming into something different, a trope constantly defying expectations. Today, directors, writers, and actresses alike are beginning to find new sides to the scream queen label, refusing to limit or box it. The scream queen has more bite than ever before and isn’t afraid of bearing her teeth. Accompanied by fellow actresses like Anya Taylor-Joy, Samara Weaving, Jenna Ortega, Naomi Watts, and the Farmiga sisters, Goth is spearheading the revolution of the scream queen, proving there’s more to her than meets the eye.
The scream queen then
Horror has existed since the birth of cinema. Because of its nature, the genre usually included a female lead, who became the de-facto prey for the story’s antagonist, be it a monster or a human killer. From Greta Schröder in 1922’s Nosferatu to Julie Adams in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, the scream queen was ever-present in the genre. She usually played a demure and weak character, entirely at the monster’s mercy. Even when she showed more agency, like Gloria Stuart’s Flora in The Invisible Man or Evelyn Ankers’ Gwen in The Wolf Man, she was still no match for the monster.
As the genre evolved, so did the scream queen. Hitchcock allowed her more dynamism, even if she remained subdued to the story’s leading man. The scream queen was often a companion, seldom the star. She supported the protagonist and acted as something he could lose, an Achilles heel of sorts. While the leading man got to be the hero, the scream queen could only settle for the sidekick role. Hitchcock’s scream queens — Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Joan Fontaine, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh — were always beautiful and glamorous, but the facades only covered the secrets within. Hitchcock introduced complexity to the horror leading lady, allowing the scream queen more freedom, even if she remained firmly in her corner.
The ’70s and ’80s brought a new concept of what a leading lady in horror should be. While other genres embraced sexual experimentation, horror became surprisingly timid. The scream queen at its center, the final girl, rejected the revolution, instead remaining pure and virginal. Other women around her could be promiscuous or experimental, but they all paid dearly for their curiosity. The final girl was almost a prude, and the slasher genre was her domain. Jamie Lee Curtis might be the final girl by excellence thanks to her now-iconic portrayal of Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween.
The film’s success spawned countless pale imitations, few with the original’s sense of lingering dread. Indeed, the late ’80s and early ’90s nearly drove the slasher to self-implosion by seemingly stretching it past its breaking point. On the brink of non-relevance, the genre received a much-needed boost from Wes Craven’s subversive and ultra-meta 1996’s masterpiece, Scream, a film that redefined the scream queen’s role.
With Sydney Prescott, the scream queen became an active participant in the story. No longer embodying a victim of circumstance, the scream queen playing the final girl was now spirited and capable, often standing up to the killer on her own terms. She still needed help and remained somewhat prudish, but she was no longer an innocent wallflower. Characters like Buffy Summers and Sarah Bailey continued exploring the final girl’s limits, thus helping the scream queen achieve new and unprecedented heights.
The scream queen now
The new millennium opened with a slew of cheap horror remakes that did nothing to advance the genre. The scream queen title became somewhat devaluated as ’90s icons like Neve Campbell, Jennifer Tilly, and Sarah Michelle Gellar ventured into other genres. In all honesty, the 2000s were a barren time for the scream queen camp, with few worthy additions to the line-up. Poor Danielle Harris, whose title was secured since childhood with Halloween 4 and 5, was among the only scream queens working on the noughties, nearly single-handedly carrying the brand.
However, the 2010s brought interesting changes. Shifting views and a slew of filmmakers willing to take risks meant that scream queens could be more experimental than ever. Robert Eggers’ 2015 supernatural horror The Witch introduced nineteen-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, an unnerving young girl and the first of many game-changing female characters in horror.
The modern scream queen is active and directly involved in her salvation. Brave but confused and scared by the threat stalking her, the modern scream queen embraces tradition but welcomes change. She’ll scream and cry but won’t cower in dark corners, acknowledging the danger but still facing it head-on, preparing herself for the worst while hoping for the best. Film and television have given us some incredible compelling examples, with actresses leaving their hearts, souls, and a few vocal cords in their performances. Think of Sara Paulson in American Horror Story, Vera Farmiga in The Conjuring series, Naomi Watts in Funny Games, Toni Collette in Hereditary, Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Mia Wasikowska in Stoker, and Betty Gabriel in Get Out.
These actresses continuously deliver increasingly complex and modulated performances in a genre that doesn’t always allow nuance. They bring a sense of legitimacy to their work and, thus, their movies, surpassing their genre’s perceived limitations. Whereas the scream queen label once carried a certain niche quality that kept it on the outskirts of mainstream recognition, it is now a label used to describe some of the best and hardest-working actresses today and their brave and genre-defying performances.
The scream queen as the monster
The idea of the female character as the monster is not recent. Cinema has toyed with it as far back as 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester’s iconic portrayal of the titular character. Films like Dracula’s Daughter, The Invisible Woman, and She-Wolf of London capitalized on the success of previous projects to deliver gender-bent versions of many of their established classics. The hagsploitation sub-genre of the ’60s and ’70s used older film icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age, denigrating them for audiences’ perverse pleasures.
Yet, the true and most revolutionary change for the horror leading lady came in the new millennium. Recent years have shown filmmakers and actresses are more willing to explore the darker side of the final girl, pushing her to the edge of darkness. In modern cinema, the queen screams not in fear but rage.
It’s no surprise that the scream queen of today is equal parts hero and villain. A24’s best horror films spearhead this trend, with Midsommar‘s Florence Pugh, Hereditary‘s Toni Colette, and Lamb‘s Noomi Rapace. Then there’s Mia Goth, whose roles in West’s trilogy are among the best examples of this new trend. As Maxine in X, Goth is a heroine willing to explore the darkness without succumbing to it. As Pearl in the film of the same name, she is a sympathetic ingenue whose journey of self-discovery leads down a dire path. Goth understands the modern scream queen’s rage; she is not innocent but resourceful and willing to get her hands as dirty as necessary. She’s no longer in it to survive; she wants to win. If that makes her a monster, so be it.
In hindsight, this change has been a long time coming. For years, the scream queen played the wallflower, the ultimate victim of circumstance. Even when she had the power to bring her enemies down, like Sissy Spacek’s Carrie White, she was still a tragic figure, and audiences still pitied her even if they also feared her. But the modern scream queen commands respect. We don’t feel sorry for her, no matter how hard things get; we know she’ll overcome the pain and hardship. Her means might be bloody, but she’s earned the right to use them.
With Pearl, West and Goth continue their task to reshape the scream queen’s role in cinema, and thank god for that. Embodying the horror genre, the scream queen is more powerful and terrifying than ever. Mess with her and find out. She’s scary and beautiful, frail but capable, entrancing and slightly sinister. The modern scream queen could end her film covered head-to-toe in blood and smiling at the camera, yet she would still hold the audience’s heart. She can kill, maim, and exact bloody vengeance on those who wronged her, and we’ll still cheer for her. For so long, the scream queen was a tragic figure, and we delighted at her torture. Now is her time to fight back, and she’s coming for the kill.
You can watch X on major digital platforms including Prime Video. Pearl opens in theaters nationwide on September 16.