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Ruby Slippers, Blood Red: What ‘Pearl’ Adds to the Horror Legacy of ‘The Wizard of Oz’

In 2004, Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments ranked The Wizard of Oz at #86 on its countdown. Among the miscellaneous talking heads, director Stuart Gordon and the Coors Light Twins agreed that the movie gave many children nightmares. Before taking flight over the rainbow, a tornado swirls around the flat Kansas landscape. The creepy costumed flying monkeys cluster in the sky to snatch up innocents. And there’s a shrill, cackling green witch threatening to destroy the otherwise hopeful, whimsical tale. It’s easy to see how the 1939 classic could birth an enduring horror legacy. The timeless status to the 1939 movie gives it fuel to light ablaze a demented world. Director Ti West’s Pearl (2022) uses elements from the 1939 classic to present a twisted homage. Judy Garland’s Dorothy made friends along her magical journey. Mia Goth’s Pearl destroys relationships as she descends into mayhem.

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The Wizard of Oz welcomes audiences into a sepia-colored world with the iconic “Main Title” over the opening credits. The opening score to Pearl (Tyler Bates and Tim Williams) is just as hopeful and romantic, inviting audiences into the headspace of Pearl. Barn doors slide open like the curtains of a theater. Moments later, the lighting slips right into Pearl’s inner life. Everything goes dark, except for a spotlight over her. Then her mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) storms in, hurling her daughter back into a simple bedroom. It could be a moment in Oz. After the house lands, Dorothy (Judy Garland) steps outside, out of a sepia world and into the lush colors of Munchkinland. The transition is seamless, all in one take. For Pearl, the switch is just as important. Her mother, or reality in general, will always interfere with the girl’s ambitions.

Various beloved characters from Oz are tainted because of the emphasis on reality over fantasy. Director Ari Aster proclaimed his film Midsommar to be “Wizard of Oz for perverts.” Little did anyone know what was to come in Pearl. In Oz, Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) sings “If I Only Had a Brain,” while flimsy legs cause him to move as if he’s trying to stay steady during an earthquake on a waxed floor. There’s no brain or any life at all to the scarecrow Pearl comes upon. To her, the scarecrow is a sexual plaything with bulging eyes, and a top hat she swipes to wear on her own head.

RELATED: ‘Pearl’ Works Better as an Ode to Vintage Camp Cinema Than as a Horror Movie

Many aspects of the Wizard (Frank Morgan) can be seen in the theater Projectionist (David Corenswet). The Projectionist takes pride in living as a drifter, never settling down in one place. Pearl idolizes this and mutters how it sounds like a dream. “Just as long as I can keep from waking up,” the Projectionist concludes. Dreams, fantasy, and the unavoidable crash of reality. He doesn’t need to make promises to Pearl, he already has her enraptured. But he keeps going. He shows Pearl the magical wonders of porno movies. Like the Projectionist, the Wizard’s Kansas counterpart Professor Marvel is a drifter too, poking around Dorothy’s purse to him make appear as a bona fide fortune teller. Like the Wizard, the Projectionist is only a man. Dorothy attaches her only means to escape from Kansas onto Marvel, then Oz on the Wizard. Pearl does too, hoping the Projectionist will take her when he travels abroad. The Wizard wasn’t all that great or powerful, and the Projectionist isn’t either: he falls victim to Pearl’s pitchfork when he figures out the girl is dangerous.

In the closing minutes, Pearl’s husband Howard (Alistair Sewell) returns from war, just in time to see what’s for dinner. There’s a grim sight of his dead in-laws, propped around the table. But it doesn’t horrify him too badly. Howard will stick by his wife’s side for many decades to come. This is none other than the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), as someone who decides to be submissive to Pearl’s dark impulses. Howard will do so until his 1979 death in X (2022). He will help clean up the bodies and trap new victims. Unlike the lion, he doesn’t deserve a Triple Cross medal for courage.

The Tin Man (Jack Haley) has his fair share of dark variations. In Pearl, the titular character’s father (Matthew Sunderland) is trapped in full-body paralysis. Because of this, it turns him into a tin man who’s lost his oil can. “Are you still in there?” Pearl asks, poking his face as if observing a human-shaped husk, not a parent. She reaches over to grip his throat and constricts his breathing. She lets go, but his eventual death is inevitable. While he’s not so much of a guardian like Uncle Henry (Charley Grapewin), the two men avoid conflict at all costs. The difference being, Henry does so while being capable of doing more to help his niece; Pearl’s father cannot, suffering from terrible health.

As for Pearl’s mother Ruth, she is a harshly stern Auntie Em (Clara Blandick) and her daughter’s personal Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Dinner with this family is never a fun experience. Early on, Ruth is curt over the dinner table: “I won’t allow you to wander around in foolish fantasies, and hide from your responsibilities any longer. It is a sign of weakness, and your father and I did not raise you to be weak.” This strict message advances the friction between the two. Like a tornado that sweeps across Kansas, bad weather factors into another evening meal that goes to hell. Lightning flashes wildly as Ruth verbally attacks Pearl. When Ruth gets pushed too close to the fireplace, flames engulf her dress, soon her whole body. The “witch” needs to be doused. Pearl finds the nearest thing, tossing over scalding water from a stove pot. Ruth doesn’t melt, she’s left with fatal burns. But how wicked is she really?

This mother is at her wit’s end. She cries herself to sleep. Ruth explains that Pearl getting what she wants isn’t important, “making the most of what you have is.” While Dorothy is overjoyed in learning this, Pearl despises it. “Malevolence is festering in you, I see it!” she tells her daughter. As much as Pearl aspires to be a pleasant girl like Dorothy, she just isn’t cut out for it. In Return to Oz (1985), Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) insists on having visited Oz, which gets her admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This young girl shouldn’t be under a psych evaluation — Pearl absolutely should! Unlike Dorothy, in either 1985 or 1939, Pearl has no one to turn to. She’s selfish, so stuck in her own head, she uses people to boost herself and her confidence. When she loses their attention, she acts out violently and recklessly.

Through costuming, Pearl’s blue overalls are made to look like Dorothy Gale’s blue gingham dress. The movie swiftly disrupts that. Pearl kills and feeds a goose to her own Toto in the form of loyal alligator Theda, living on the property. Pearl’s body count means Theda’s belly won’t be empty any time soon. By the end of the movie, the wardrobe changes. Pearl chases her sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), wearing the silver shoes from L. Frank Baum’s original literature. The only blue left on Pearl is a bow in her hair. There are no ruby slippers; instead Pearl wears a ruby-red dress of Ruth’s. Mitsy’s feet fail her in the frantic attempt to get away. The golden locks to her might resemble Glinda (Billie Burke), but what the sister-in-law better represents is the innocence Pearl has been desperately clinging to. Now it’s shifted over to Mitsy, who Pearl kills and dismembers.

At the end of Pearl, there’s no curtain call. In this case, no barn door call to close out the movie like how it opened. The sweeping score, its hoping tune turning eerie the longer the ending credits play. There on screen, isn’t the barn doors closing, reassuring the fantasy. It’s Pearl, seeing her husband back home. She can’t hide what is happening any longer. Like The Wizard of Oz, she goes on a journey of self-discovery. Dorothy settled on loving a mundane life, surrounded by people she knew cared for her. Not only is Pearl stuck at the farm house and knows she likes killing, Howard is the only one left. She tried to escape, but violent outbursts effectively stranded her in a purgatory of her own making. Like a farm girl in Kansas once did, Pearl realizes there is no place like home.


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