A24’s MaXXXine flips the script to give you something fresh to scream about

With X and Pearl, it was hard to miss that Ti West was using pornography and horror as lenses through which to tell a story about the evolution of film. Both were explorations of how naked bodies have always been a subject of cinematic fascination, and while the movies were tonally different, they similarly spotlighted how sex has always been one of the driving forces behind the advancement of movie-making technology.

MaXXXine enters the X franchise knowing full well how easily it could fall victim to the threequel curse if it simply dropped its star into a new decade to fight for her life on yet another farm. And while it features plenty of callbacks to its predecessors, it switches the formula up just enough to make it feel like West has pulled off a blood-soaked hat trick.

You don’t really need to be familiar with the Texas Chain Saw Massacre-inspired events of X or that film’s stomach-turning connection to Pearl to appreciate MaXXXine as a slasher in the vein of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Maniac. But MaXXXine’s plot — which incorporates aspects of American ’80s culture like the satanic panic — and its focus on rising film star Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) make a different kind of sense when you know what went down on that run-down Texas farm back in 1979. 

Six years after narrowly escaping with her life and setting off to realize her dream of becoming a mainstream movie star, Maxine has wound up in Los Angeles and damn near done the thing thanks to an unflappable work ethic and the unwavering support of her crooked agent Teddy Knight (Giancarlo Esposito). In a town full of newly minted blondes hungry for big breaks, neither Maxine’s thick accent nor her willingness to show skin is quite enough to make her stand out — especially for bigger-budget projects that aren’t just about people having sex. But after meeting with Maxine and watching her audition, director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki) is convinced that she’s found the star for her new supernatural horror The Puritan II.

Bender’s fictional film within a film helps establish early on what kinds of real-world movies MaXXXine ultimately excels at echoing — cheesy, practically created thrillers revolving around beautiful young people and psychopaths hot to murder them. But compared to West’s last films, which were both smaller by design, MaXXXine has a far larger scope that’s key to the way it evokes the spirit of the ’80s as a whole.

You can feel West channeling the sexiness of dramas like Flashdance and the grimy glamour of neo-noirs like Body Double as Maxine rushes from her gigs at a strip joint to rehearsals on set. In terms of locations, MaXXXine’s world is both bigger and more intricate than that of either Pearl or X, which — coupled with Goth’s steelier performance — makes Maxine herself feel almost like a different character. West also uses this newly added space to paint a picture of LA (the city) at its sleaziest and emphasize how the US’s Ronald Reagan-era political conservatism had a transformative effect on the era’s larger pop cultural landscape.

MaXXXine’s explicit eroticism juxtaposed with its frequent shots of protesting conservative evangelists often makes the film feel like the X franchise’s most direct commentary on / response to Hollywood’s present-day aversion to sex. But by specifically setting MaXXXine in 1985 and building its story, in part, around the Night Stalker murders, West cleverly sets the feature up to play like a coked-up tribute to the year itself, with all its paranoia and B-horror projects that would eventually go on to become genre classics.

What’s most surprising about MaXXXine is how comedically it unfolds as it imagines what might happen to a serial killer who sets their sights on a woman with very few qualms about maiming and / or murdering people when she feels threatened. As people around Maxine start turning up dead, however, the movie shifts into an increasingly tense mode akin to a psychological thriller that pushes Goth to bring a pointed vulnerability to her performance.

In contrast to the depth it affords its star, many of MaXXXine’s other players — like trigger-happy private investigator John Labat (Kevin Bacon) and LAPD detectives Torres (Bobby Cannavale) and Williams (Michelle Monaghan) — are intentionally rendered as over-the-top caricatures whose flamboyance belies their two-dimensionality. Those characters are easy to appreciate as another layer of West paying homage to his cinematic influences, but much like the film’s many nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, their presence at times makes MaXXXine feel a bit too enamored with its own tongue-in-cheek-ness.

More than its setting or new time period, MaXXXine’s self-awareness about being the third installment in a franchise that audiences now have certain expectations about is what makes it feel most distinct from X and Pearl. Especially if you’ve recently sat down to watch the X movies in chronological order and paid attention to their fairly obvious subplot about how the public has responded to porn over the decades, the twist of MaXXXine’s big finale will be blindingly obvious just a few minutes in. But as the third and “final” chapter in a story about the world being forced to reckon with the birth of a star, MaXXXine delivers in spades.

MaXXXine also stars Moses Sumney, Halsey, Lily Collins, and Simon Prast. The film hits theaters on July 5th.

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