‘Maxxxine’ Review: Mia Goth Fights the Hollywood Power in Ti West’s Retro- ’80s Schlock Sex-and-Horror Thriller. It’s Fun at Times, but It’s No ‘Pearl’

“X,” the first movie in Ti West’s grungy but elevated artisanal-trash horror franchise (it’s been billed as a trilogy but may yet produce further installments), was an unusually effective stab at recreating the ’70s farmhouse-turned-charnel-house vibe of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” spiced with the fleshpot voyeurism of ’70s porn. For a retro slasher movie, it was a novelty and a curio. The insane killer was an old farm wife suffering from erotic frustration — played, under a ton of make-up, by Mia Goth, the same actress who played one of the film’s porn performers. The movie was leagues better than your average “Chain Saw” knockoff, yet it never quite transcended the slasher formula. It was a psycho thriller crafted with a fanboy filmmaker’s encyclopedic rigor.

But “Pearl,” a prequel that West shot directly after “X” (it was released just six months later in 2022), took a startling leap. It told the backstory of that ancient farm lady — who, in “Pearl,” was now an apple-cheeked lass living on her family’s Texas homestead in 1918, obsessed with becoming a star in the racy new world of motion pictures.

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Goth played her once again, only this time the character was vibrant and driven, alive with aspiration — and the movie took us inside all that to the point that when she starts to kill people, you have the rare sensation of empathy for a demented slasher. Goth had a seven-minute confessional monologue in “Pearl” that was like something delivered by Liv Ullmann. And yet, wielding a pitchfork as a murder weapon, she was also terrifying. The movie was about madness, about the dawn of feminism, about “Carrie” and “The Wizard of Oz,” about the bloody horror of dreams denied. And Mia Goth proved that she’s a wonder of an actress. “Pearl” was a quantum leap over “X,” and it made you think: If this is Part 2, what does Ti West have up his sleeve for the third installment?

That movie, which opens July 3, is called “Maxxxine,” it’s set in 1985, and it’s named for the character Goth played in “X,” who is now a noted adult-film actress, Maxine Minx, in the halfway corporatized straight-to-video world of Los Angeles skin flicks. Maxine, like Pearl, longs to be a star. Early on, she auditions for a role in a horror movie called “The Puritan II,” which looks like “The Crucible” redone as a grade-Z blood feast. For her, though, it would be more than a step up. It would be a step toward legitimacy and maybe stardom. Porn stars, at the time, had little to no chance of breaking into mainstream movies, an idea that was at least flirted with when Brian De Palma considered casting the triple-X superstar Annette Haven in “Body Double” (the studio said: over our dead stock portfolio). But in “Maxxxine,” the title character’s yearning to cross over endows her with an underdog fervor.

The way the film presents it, it’s Maxine’s hunger for stardom, her hellbent wish to lift herself out of the trough of the sex industry, that sets her apart. That and her inner fire. And inner fire, as we know from “Pearl,” is something that Mia Goth can really bring. She plays Maxine with a come-hither aggression that’s direct and compelling enough to let us wonder if Maxine could be hardcore porn’s hidden answer to Vivien Leigh.

When a filmmaker recreates an old genre, to the point that it’s obvious he has steeped himself in it, it’s generally a sign that he’s aiming high, trying to make “cinema.” That’s certainly true of Ti West. In his up-from-low-budget-gone-A24 way, he’s as obsessed with old movies as Quentin Tarantino; he riffs on them as a fetishistic act of cult homage. But just as Tarantino can draw on the lowest of grindhouse muck, West, in “Maxxxine,” applies his genre-movie scholasticism to a form that seems, on the face of it, to be the definition of disreputable: the ’80s sexploitation thriller — the kind of badly lit product, featuring women in heavy-metal lingerie and psycho stalkers who are like leering stand-ins for the men in the audience, that no one ever pretended was any good. De Palma drew on some of these films too, but “Maxxxine” is less contempo De Palma than a knowing nod to the movies you used to see stacked up in VHS bargain bins in convenience stores.

The trick is this. West wants to play homage to their utter junkiness — and, at the same time, to make a version of one of them that’s ironically “good.” He wants to do for scuzzbucket ’80s sex-and-horror trash what Tarantino did for Hollywood drive-in pulp. “Maxxxine” is a grisly exploitation thriller set between quotation marks, with an anachronistically empowered heroine at its center.

Early on, Maxine is working behind the plastic glass of the Show World emporium, where she puts on three-minute private performances for customers, when the killer comes in, dressed in shiny black leather from his hat to his gloves. He’s been looking for Maxine — and his reaction, as he tears the wooden frame off the inside of the booth, references both “Hardcore” and “Manhunter.”

Is he the Night Stalker? That’s the serial killer who terrorized L.A. for a year during the mid-’80s, and
“Maxxxine” includes this true-life monster in its fictional universe. That sounds creepy, but this is the sort of slasher pastiche that uses random killers for suspenseful convenience. Early on, Maxine is walking home when she’s trapped against a chain-link fence in an alleyway by another psycho with a knife. They’re everywhere! The fact that he’s dressed like Buster Keaton is a funny touch, and Maxine, pulling a gun, makes him strip and teaches him a feminist lesson he won’t soon forget. All of that makes the scene amusing. Yet the garish coincidence of it all, the atmosphere of Jack-in-the-box violence, is tawdry in the extreme.

West, coloring in the 1980s, winks at the offscreen culture of Christian (and Congressional) protest against sinful pop culture: the “satanic” heavy metal, the porn, the demon horror films. The movie serves all this up with lip-smacking nostalgia, presenting the war between Christianity and entertainment demonism as the real horror movie. And Maxine is part of it. She does indeed get cast in “The Puritan II,” and the film’s director, Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), who at this point is the very rare female filmmaker in the industry, turns out to be a fierce artistic brainiac who teaches Maxine how to survive in Hollywood. Sure, “The Puritan II” is a piece of claptrap, but its creator says that she’s trying to make “a B-movie with A ideas.” That’s a key line, since it expresses the Ti West agenda.

His A ideas include deconstructing how Hollywood degrades women, even as they’re at the center of everything it’s selling. That means tracing the invisible continuity between mainstream Hollywood, Z-movie Hollywood, and the sex industry (the cinematic patriarchy), all cemented by the references starlets keep making to some “party in the Hills,” that mythic bash where a wannabe can meet the producer or director who will change her life, or maybe the sugar daddy who will take care of her, or both in one.

There’s a key scene that takes place on the set of the “Psycho” house (which, as the “Psycho” sequels demonstrated, is utterly demystified when it’s shot in color and used as a B-movie prop). Kevin Bacon shows up as a private detective who’s actually working for the killer, and Bacon, with several gold teeth, chewing on a gumbo-thick New Orleans drawl, has so much fun playing a character who’s like Jake Gittes scripted by Abel Ferrara that you go with it, assuming (or hoping) that he’ll deepen the intrigue. And Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan, as quarrelsome homicide-cop partners, demonstrate how much Ti West’s casting clout has increased since “Pearl.” There’s a scratchy piece of VHS evidence: a copy of the porn film, entitled “The Farmer’s Daughters,” that Maxine was shooting in “X.” That film has disappeared, but it could now result in her being convicted of murder.

The screwy power of “Pearl” was its off-center ambiguity: the way it made Pearl a scary killer. “Maxxxine,” diverting as the film can be when it’s reveling in midnight ’80s nostalgia, has a moral structure that’s both more traditional and creakier — noble heroine in peril (even if she did once kill in self-defense), evil sicko lingering in the shadows. When we’re finally hit with the revelation of who the killer is, it’s supposed to be the Babylon heart of darkness. But instead you just think, “Sorry, I’m not buying that for a moment. Especially given the prices of homes in the Hollywood Hills.” Ti West is a good filmmaker, but it may be time for him to stop reconfiguring trash. He needs to try embedding A ideas in an A-movie.

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