Mia Goth and Ti West’s Horror Trilogy Ends in Style 5

A glorious paean to the lurid sensuality and gory excess of 1980s sexploitation and horror, MaXXXine completes Ti West’s trilogy of star showcases for his fearless muse Mia Goth on a delectable note. Like its predecessors, X and Pearl, this is a gleeful dive into retro movie tropes with vivid period evocation, this time featuring a deluxe supporting cast. As Elizabeth Debicki’s ice-cool British filmmaker giving Goth’s Maxine Minx the chance to jump from porn stardom into a more legitimate career says of her feature project: “It’s a B-movie with A ideas.”

That applies no less to West’s latest psychosexual chiller. While never neglecting the blood-letting and spilled viscera of textbook slasher horror, each of the three distinctive yet cohesive films (the writer-director hasn’t ruled out a fourth) doubles as a loving homage to the filmmaking aesthetics of a particular era.

MaXXXine

The Bottom Line

Caps the trilogy in sleazy-chic high style.

Release date: Friday, July 5
Cast: Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Moses Sumney, Michelle Monaghan, Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Kevin Bacon
Director-screenwriter: Ti West

Rated R,
1 hour 43 minutes

Unfolding in Texas Chainsaw Massacre country with dark and dirty grindhouse flair, X told the story of an amateur film crew shooting a porn movie in the Lone Star state hinterlands in the late ‘70s, until their withered Holy Roller hosts on an isolated farm get wind of what’s going on in the barn. Pearl rewound the clock to 1918 to revisit the farmer’s wife — back when youth and beauty were on her side and her dreams of stardom still intact — mixing the lush style of a midcentury melodrama with that of Technicolor musicals.

Goth did double duty in X, playing both Maxine, the adult-film director’s girlfriend and star, and homicidal hag Pearl. In the follow-up, she stepped into the shoes of the young Pearl, chafing under the restrictions of her oppressive mother while yearning for fame and discovering her voracious libido. At one memorable point she shimmies up a scarecrow for sexual kicks, a scene typical of West’s penchant for winking callbacks, given that the porn opus in X was titled The Farmer’s Daughter.

The new installment, set in 1985, picks up on Goth’s Maxine in her early 30s. She’s riding high as a bona fide star of the booming video porn market, tooling around Hollywood in a convertible with “MaXXXine” vanity plates though still having to supplement her adult-film work with a peep-show gig.

Borrowing from real-life history, a serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker is terrorizing Los Angeles, preying on young women. But Maxine insists she can take care of herself, which she demonstrates by teaching a painful lesson to the testicles of a knifepoint assailant in Buster Keaton drag. “Drop it, Buster,” she tells him as she whips out her gun.

The Night Stalker killings have fanned the flames of the family-values crusaders protesting the violence and smut flooding the entertainment market, and West (who also edited) emphasizes that climate of moral hysteria by slipping in a quick clip of Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider arriving to testify before a Senate committee in opposition to music industry censorship.

The allure of celebrity and the sticky intersection between the carnal and the spiritual have been an undercurrent running through the trilogy. It stands to reason that the scratchy black-and-white home-movie that serves as a prologue to MaXXXine — in which a young girl dances while her off-camera preacher father assures her she’s going to be the star of their church — will have gruesome present-day echoes. “I will not accept a life I do not deserve,” says the child, dutifully repeating her father’s credo.

The film proper gets under way as we watch from inside a darkened soundstage as Maxine slides open the doors and struts in with confidence under a voluminous cascade of feathered hair, poured into a matching acid-wash denim halter top and jeans with spike-heeled boots. She reads for the lead role in The Puritan 2, a demonic possession thriller that ambitious director Liz Bender (Debicki) intends as her stepping-stone from video-nasties to mainstream projects. Maxine also sees it as her crossover vehicle. Naturally, she nails the audition, blithely taunting the lineup of blondes outside that they’re wasting their time.

Liz demands Maxine’s total commitment, but that proves challenging when unwelcome distractions keep popping up, not least of them the flashes in her head of traumatic X memories.

Two of her friends from the porn business, Amber (Chloe Farnworth) and Tabby (Halsey), are last seen heading to a party in the Hollywood Hills, thrown by a mysterious producer. Maxine receives an anonymous video recording of disturbing violence, and two detectives, Williams (Michelle Monaghan) and Torres (Bobby Cannavale), start leaning on her to share information as the victims connected to her start multiplying.

Worse still, sleazy Louisiana private investigator John Labat (Kevin Bacon) becomes a nuisance, acting as a mediator for a shadowy client seen initially only as a pair of clenched hands in black leather gloves. Maxine’s lawyer, Teddy (Giancarlo Esposito), proves helpful in dealing with pests, resulting in one of the more spectacular deaths of the trilogy. But Maxine’s fearlessness ultimately lands her in a precarious situation where she comes face to face with her past.

West’s feel for the time and place is impeccable, from the trashy-flashy sleaze of Hollywood Boulevard in that era, with its assortment of punks and freaks and celebrity impersonators, to the fire-and-brimstone “Satanic Panic” of the demented climax.

There’s humor in the use of famous landmarks, from strategic action unfolding around the Hollywood sign to a splashy premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, as it was then known; from the Psycho house still standing in disrepair on the backlot through a shot of Maxine’s boot stubbing out a cigarette on Theda Bara’s Walk of Fame star.

When two murder victims turn up at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a cop informs Williams and Torres: “A couple of homos cruising Judy Garland’s grave found the bodies.” That’s one of many nuggets of dialogue redolent of the times, even if it’s historically inaccurate given that Garland’s remains were only transferred there in 2017.

West’s genre skills are matched by his fondness for the look and feel of the 1980s B-movie, an unmistakable reference that nonetheless transcends pastiche.

He has invaluable help from trilogy DP Eliot Rockett, who gets in some mesmerizing tracking sequences, notably early on when Maxine sashays from her car into a porn studio, scooping a hit of coke from a capacious cookie jar while preparing to shoot a naughty-nurse scene. Another great sequence has Liz and Maxine zipping around the studio backlot on a golf cart, providing casual commentary on the blurred lines between reality and illusion in Hollywood. The movie shifts atmospherically between scorching daylight and gritty nightscapes, imprinted here and there with neon.

Deft deployment of wipes, split-screen and aspect ratio switches also evoke the period, as do Jason Kisvarday and Mari-An Ceo’s flavorful production and costume design, respectively. Nostalgists will eat up the soundtrack’s bangers, among them tracks by ZZ Top, New Order, Judas Priest and Kim Carnes, along with the indispensable synth-pop groove of Animotion’s “Obsession.” And Tyler Bates’ bone-chilling score helps ratchet up the suspense.

The movie gets plenty of juice out of its ensemble cast. Debicki is all no-BS authority and crisp emotional detachment as a driven woman determined to make her mark in what’s still a man’s world; Esposito, in a spectacular wig, is a shady operator who’s paternally protective of his client; Monaghan and Cannavale establish a zesty dynamic between the law enforcement partners, with Williams the smart, level-headed one and failed actor Torres more impetuous; and Bacon bites into scuzzy, sweaty Labat with relish and a big chewy N’Awlins drawl, sipping a Bloody Mary or swigging from a Pepto Bismol bottle.

Halsey gives good Debi Mazar in her brief turn, while Lily Collins is fun as a North Yorkshire council estate transplant who got her break in the first Puritan movie, musician-actor Moses Sumney has an easygoing appeal as Maxine’s friend from the video store downstairs, and Simon Prast goes large with a key role that’s best kept as a surprise.

Ultimately, of course, this is the Mia Goth show and fans wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s a magnetic presence who fortifies her command as a new breed of scream queen, tough enough to dish out punishment as well as receive it.

In the space of just two years, the actress and her director have cooked up a highly entertaining slasher trilogy that nods back to the past while striding forward into the meta future, deliciously skewering the pursuit of fame and the lure of desire with an outpouring of love for the craft of moviemaking. As Maxine carves up a line of coke with her SAG card, you might find yourself hoping we haven’t seen the last of her.

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