Ti West's Horror Trilogy Concludes With the Fun but Overstuffed 'MaXXXine' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Ti West's Horror Trilogy Concludes With the Fun but Overstuffed 'MaXXXine'

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Published July 10, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Mia Goth returns as a Texas waif turned porn queen in Ti West's '80s-tastic horror film. - COURTESY OF JUSTIN LUBIN/A24
  • Courtesy Of Justin Lubin/A24
  • Mia Goth returns as a Texas waif turned porn queen in Ti West's '80s-tastic horror film.

Horror director Ti West is a pastiche artist, in a good way. His 2009 breakout film, The House of the Devil, was a dead ringer for an early '80s scare flick, with then-obscure Greta Gerwig among the unlucky victims. In 2022, West earned rave reviews for X, a slasher set in 1979 that suggests The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a meta twist. (The victims are shooting an adult film on a Texas farmstead.)

That film launched a trilogy, each movie in a new and distinct style but with the same star: Mia Goth. Set in 1918, Pearl (2022) depicted the origin story of X's villain as if it were a glossy Douglas Sirk melodrama. Now Goth reprises her X role in MaXXXine, which takes the character to Los Angeles in 1985, when the Night Stalker was terrorizing the city. If X is a slasher and Pearl is a dark character study, the final installment evokes an Italian giallo — a gritty mystery with veritable floods of gore.

The deal

Six years after surviving the massacre of her entire crew in rural Texas, Maxine Minx (Goth) has made it to Hollywood and established herself as an adult film star. She's far from her origin as Maxine Miller, a televangelist's dutiful daughter. But Maxine craves mainstream success, which she hopes to find as the star of a horror movie called The Puritan II.

As she strives to live up to the expectations of the ambitious director (Elizabeth Debicki), Maxine discovers she has a stalker. Her friends are being murdered, their bodies defaced with satanic symbols. Two LA Police Department detectives (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) think Maxine is linked to the crimes. Meanwhile a seedy private investigator (Kevin Bacon) shows up to threaten her with the exposure of her bloody past if she doesn't meet with his employer — who could be behind the killings.

Will you like it?

"A B movie with an A idea." That's how the director of The Puritan II describes her artistic goal, speaking for all the filmmakers who have tried to use a smart, cheaply made horror film as a calling card to get themselves into the big leagues. In the 1980s, horror was widely derided as an exploitative genre one step up from porn, with occasional exceptions such as The Shining. Today, the genre has achieved a new prestige, and critics bandy about the phrase "elevated horror" — B movies with A ideas.

West uses Debicki's character to poke sly fun at filmmakers like him, who hedge their bets by offering gruesome shocks for the gore hounds and social commentary for the media and festival crowd. MaXXXine demonstrates that serving multiple audiences is a tricky business, however. While it's an entertaining throwback, the movie ends up overstuffed and a little muddled.

West's trilogy explores a solid "A idea": The pursuit of fame is an American tradition, and it will make you into a monster. In 1918, Pearl goes on a killing spree after her show-biz dreams are dashed. In 1979, she does it again, and only Maxine, driven by the same determination to shine on the silver screen, can stop her. MaXXXine asks: Can Maxine finally achieve what Pearl didn't, bringing the story full circle? Or will she be foiled by a mystery killer who also seems to thirst for the limelight?

Everybody in the movie is at least tangentially connected to the entertainment industry; even the cops have a running bit of banter about how Cannavale's character didn't make it as an actor. On a studio lot, Bacon's detective chases Maxine into the Bates house from Psycho.

West's screenplay name-checks Elizabeth Short — the aspiring star known as the Black Dahlia, who became famous for her horrific murder — to make us wonder if Maxine will meet a similar fate. Goth shows her skill by playing the character with a low-key steeliness that couldn't be further removed from her histrionics as Pearl. It's fun to follow Maxine on her nightly routine, which includes playing Louise Brooks in a peep show and doling out street justice to a would-be rapist. But Maxine is so chill, so goal-focused, that we rarely doubt her eventual triumph.

As a result, MaXXXine never evokes a fraction of the dread the Black Dahlia story does. On the mystery front, the villain's identity is all too easy to guess, especially given the heavy-handed references to the "satanic panic" throughout the movie.

To his credit, West doesn't actually make Richard Ramirez (aka the Night Stalker) a character in the story. (For a campy retro saga that did, see "American Horror Story: 1984.") MaXXXine has its share of moments that fright fans will savor, and vintage details, Hollywood history Easter eggs and split-screen sequences keep us from getting bored. But as the coda to a beloved trilogy, MaXXXine proves that sometimes an A idea reaches a B conclusion.

margot harrison

If you like this, try...

X (2022; fuboTV, Kanopy, rentable): While you can understand MaXXXine without seeing the first film, it's helpful. As a prequel, Pearl is optional but the best of the three.

Body Double (1984; rentable): What were horror movies about the decadence of '80s Hollywood like in the '80s? Find out from Brian De Palma's lurid riff on Vertigo, also about a porn star.

Ms. 45 (1981; Freevee, Peacock, PLEX, Roku Channel, YouTube Primetime, rentable): With its sleazy setting and gun-toting heroine, MaXXXine harks back to Abel Ferrara's low-budget cult classic, in which a woman doles out vengeance to rapists.

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