Source: A24

Review: 'MaXXXine' a Well-Acted, Stylish Horror Film

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 4 MIN.

Anchored by Mia Goth's bravura performance, "MaXXXine" – written, directed, and edited by Ti West – overflows with style and nods to cinema history. It has a strong first act but fizzles out by the end, lacking the depth and cleverness it could have had.

In 1985, six years after the events in "X," Mia Goth returns as Maxine Minx, the Final Girl from "X." Living in Los Angeles, she's become a big name in the adult entertainment industry. She's ecstatic that she's cast in a horror movie, so she can leave porn behind and become a mainstream star. Maxine's director (Elizabeth Debicki), who advocates for her casting, tells her to remain focused and get rid of any distractions.

Meanwhile, a killer stalks women, similar to the actual serial killer Night Stalker in the 1980s. People in Maxine's orbit wind up dead. Two cops (Bobby Canavale and Michelle Monaghan) investigate the murders, and a slimy private detective (Kevin Bacon) follows her, all threatening to uncover Maxine's bloody history.

"MaXXXine" thematically picks up where "Pearl" ends: Both protagonists give monologues in their audition. Whereas in "Pearl" the titular character believes she did wonderfully but actually lacks talent, the third film opens with Maxine nailing her audition.

All three films in the trilogy focus on women obsessed with celebrity movie stardom. While casting Mia Goth in the dual roles initially seemed like a gimmick, along with erasing an opportunity for an older actress to portray the role, it makes sense, as Maxine and Pearl share ambitions.

Mia Goth gives a fantastic performance as always, whether in period films ("Emma"), sci-fi ("High Life"), or horror, like the "X" Trilogy. Goth exudes swagger and confidence as well as a voracious ambition with tinges of yearning desperation. Maxine knows her worth and refuses to settle, boldly going after what she wants. While Maxine diverges from other famous Final Girls, like most others, she remains haunted by the terror of surviving the murderous events in "X."

"MaXXXine" is part police-procedural mystery, which is what comprised many early 1980s slashers. But it's odd that the film is set in 1985, considering slashers were already on the decline by 1984, the end of the Golden Age of slasher films. However, the success of "A Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) helped usher in horror films with more supernatural themes.

Ti West wanted to transition from the isolated farmhouse location of "X" and "Pearl" to a more epic "cinematic scope" for "MaXXXine." Similar to horror films like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Midsommar," "X" and "Pearl" twisted the bright sunshine and wide-open landscapes from feeling relaxing to sinister. But "MaXXXine" conjures a gritty, seedy, neon-tinged Hollywood. Singers Debbie Harry and Missing Persons' Dale Bozzio inspire Maxine's look.

"MaXXXine" offers some great nods to cinema and horror history. A chase scene involves the Bates house from "Psycho"; Maxine puts her cigarette out on the Hollywood star of silent film actress Theda Bara, known for sexy roles; and a man following Maxine in an alley looks to be styled like actor/filmmaker Buster Keaton.

Kevin Bacon, whose costuming evokes Jack Nicholson's Jake in "Chinatown," got his start in the horror genre with "Friday the 13th." Larry Fessenden, a horror staple and producer of West's early films, portrays a security guard.

Singer-songwriter Moses Sumney, in his first film role, portrays Leon, a gay Black video store clerk and Maxine's best friend. While it's nice to have a queer character, and Sumney is solid, it's a trope-filled role. He's a sidekick without much interiority or agency or story of his own. We merely get a glimpse of personality.

Some great gory moments involve a stiletto heel, a car compactor, a cross in the eye, and an exploding head – a possible nod to the exploding heads in '80s slashers "Maniac" and "The Prowler," both created by special effects icon Tom Savini.

Throughout the trilogy, religion and sexual freedom have been pitted against each other. In "MaXXXine," the killer brands victims with pentacles, called the devil's symbol in the film (even though they're not satanic, but a Wiccan symbol), and a montage shows religious protestors and news footage of the battle against sexually explicit song lyrics. However, I'm not sure the film really has anything meaningful to say about them or about the intersection of sex and violence in the media.

Thankfully, "MaXXXine" doesn't suffer from the ageist hagsploitation plaguing "X." And I appreciate that a woman director hires and mentors Maxine, especially considering the lack of women directors in the 1980s. However, Maxine says, "Women age like bread, not wine" when she explains why she wants to transition from adult films to mainstream films. The trilogy offered the perfect opportunity to comment on ageism in Hollywood, but it reifies those harmful tropes rather than challenging them.

Overall, I liked "MaXXXine." It's incredibly well-crafted in its technical elements. The film is fairly predictable regarding its big reveal, as it makes thematic sense. It loses steam by the third act, which is especially surprising, as Ti West's films often start as slow burns building to propulsive finales.

"MaXXXine" is a solid, enjoyable horror film and a solid sequel finishing the trilogy (although there may be a fourth??) due to its stylish visuals and Mia Goth's superb performance as a ravenously ambitious star. But it's not as powerful, innovative, or daring as it could have been.

"MaXXXine" opens in theaters Friday, July 5, 2024.

by Megan Kearns

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