3 out of 5 stars

It’s an ambitious undertaking to consecutively release a series of interconnected films within five years, particularly without an original concept or narrative arc. Yet, Ti West has accomplished this with remarkable clarity, swiftly establishing himself as a prominent figure in contemporary horror.

With X (2022), the writer-director unveiled a visceral throwback that captivated an enthusiastic SXSW audience before achieving theatrical success. After quietly concocting an origin story for its tormented female antagonist, West unexpectedly unveiled the prequel soon after. Pearl (2022) offered a strikingly different tone, leaving critics and audiences eagerly anticipating more.

Arriving with considerable hype, West concludes his trilogy with the highly anticipated MaXXXine. Tapping into the seedy underbelly of peep shows and the surreal realities of studio backlots, the final instalment is a neon-drenched paean to the lurid sensuality and gory excess of 1980s sexploitation.

Taking place in 1985, six years after narrowly escaping the events that claimed her friends, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) has become a successful actress in the adult film industry. Believing her dream of becoming famous is limited in that profession, she makes the transition into mainstream cinema. After impressing director Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), the aspiring starlet lands her first role as the lead actress in the supernatural horror, The Puritan II. However, a mysterious voyeur seems intent on sabotaging her opportunity.

When her friends Amber (Chloe Farnworth) and Tabby (Halsey), Detective Williams (Michelle Monaghan), and Torres (Bobby Cannavale) start leaning on Maxine for information, meanwhile a private detective (Kevin Bacon) begins pursuing Maxine on behalf of a mysterious figure who wants to meet her. As the production date for The Puritan II approaches, Maxine’s fearlessness ultimately lands her in a precarious situation where she comes face to face with her past.

Reprising her role as Maxine Minx, Mia Goth (Infinity Pool) is a magnetic presence who fortifies herself as a new breed of Scream Queen. Highlighting her impressive capabilities with an incredibly complex performance, she creates an equally vulnerable and mighty ferocious character. Behind that baby face with the constellation of freckles over one eye is an unchecked savage who believes in biblical justice. While leaning into Maxine’s borderline dangerous delusions of grandeur, she views herself less as Marilyn Chambers (Rabid) and more like Brooke Shields (“Who got naked and now she’s in a fucking Muppet movie”).

Alternately, there’s a suppressed anguish behind her unbroken stares that will make audiences wonder if there’s an entire world of thought and imagination behind her eyes. There are many complicated layers that Goth needs to bring to the surface, and the results could easily fall flat in the hands of a less capable performer. It’s a delicate balancing act between an enthusiast dreamer and an unfathomable monster, but she compartmentalises the opposing sides of Maxine’s personality wonderfully.

With such a consistently strong ensemble, it’s difficult to pick out individual actors. However, the characters with the most flamboyant personalities naturally stand out the most. Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) is an absolute standout as the sharp-tongued and subtly intimidating director, Elizabeth Bender. She portrays an authoritative and emotionally detached representative of the rising wave of female filmmakers, taking the eponymous character under her wing. As a shining example of the values championed by Ronald Reagan, she’s a driven woman determined to make her mark in a male-dominated industry.

Elsewhere, Kevin Bacon (Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F) relishes the chance to deliver an amusingly deranged performance as the disreputable private investigator, John Labat. With a hilariously exaggerated Southern drawl, he finds a grotesque middle ground between Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958) and Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). Whether he’s swigging a Bloody Mary or downing Pepto-Bismol, his inclusion injects a heavy-handed but humorous touch. His scene-stealing energy inadvertently highlights how underwritten some of the supporting characters are.

Those familiar with the trilogy will doubtless be aware of Ti West’s painstaking commitment to homaging the visual grandeur of yesteryear. It’s informed by the visceral aesthetic of exploitation cinema, evoking the unfiltered terror of seminal works such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Whereas Pearl luxuriates in the sumptuous visuals of Technicolor melodramas, drawing lush inspiration from timeless classics including The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With the Wind (1939).

For his final instalment, West has a much larger cinematic canvas to play with, immersing the audience in an aestheticised vision of 1980s Los Angeles debauchery. Manifesting the atmospheric sleaze of psychosexual thrillers such as William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), MaXXXine revels in sordid decadence and exuberant nostalgia. The opening montage immediately captures the metropolis’s seedy underbelly, juxtaposing archival news footage of Ronald Reagan’s sanctimonious moral crusade and sensationalised reports of the Satanic Panic against the dilapidated cityscape, pornographic theatres, and eccentric fashions. West’s stylistic portrayal of the film industry and the surrounding city may occasionally appear camp, but it’s an impressive feat of on-screen reconstructive archaeology that shatters the grand illusion of the Hollywood dream.

West’s complete commitment to the visual dynamic is brilliantly achieved, and his strong stylistic choices complement practically every sequence. His passion for the medium pairs beautifully with Eliot Rockett’s (The Innkeepers) vibrant cinematography, transporting viewers to a pre-digital revolution era.

While deftly deploying scratchy VHS tracking lines and split-screen editing techniques, the pair embraced era-appropriate technology to achieve a rich and authentic cinematic texture. Additionally, Tyler Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy) brings everything together with a pulsating collection of carefully curated needle drops. ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’” pulses through the speakers of Maxine’s Mercedes, perfectly capturing her unwavering pursuit of fame as she cruises down Sunset Boulevard.

In contrast, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” is ironically more pleasant than the squalid hangouts Maxine frequents. It aligns perfectly with the era, capturing the glittery extravagance and the grimy underbelly of the sprawling metropolis superbly.

Much like Quentin Tarantino revelled in recreating the shifting climate of the late-1960s with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), West invites the audience to luxuriate in his indulgences. Maxine’s scandalous profession allows him to pay homage to his cinematic influences. An early sequence featuring Maxine grinding her cigarette stub into Theda Bara’s star (A Fool There Was) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame gestures towards the transience of celebrity status, which she desperately craves. The chase sequence through the Universal Studios backlot takes our heroine to the hilltop house from Psycho (1960), famously associated with Norman Bates. These references might appear superfluous and embolden horror connoisseurs to criticise West for indulging in winks to his influences. However, while these homages can often be self-aggrandising, they’re woven into the fabric of the narrative to build tension and maintain momentum.

Despite West’s reputation for delivering some of the most creative and gruesome on-screen mutilations in contemporary cinema, horror aficionados might be disappointed that MaXXXine is less beholden to the visceral intensity found in its predecessors. It is peppered with moments of bloody violence, including a suitcase full of severed limbs and an impressive use of a car crusher. A particularly harrowing sequence involving Maxine inflicting genital trauma on a Buster Keaton impersonator will likely induce a collective squirm amongst audiences.

However, the mysterious atmosphere feels tonally indebted to crime thrillers such as Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979). The majority of the 100-minute runtime operates as a brand of film noir once Maxine unwittingly becomes entangled in an intricate web of conspiracy and murder. Acting as a go-between for a mysterious client initially seen clenching his gloved hands with a homicidal eroticism, a loathsome private investigator threatens to expose her elusive past.

When an anonymous voyeur with a penchant for dispatching sex workers begins targeting Maxine’s friends, viewers are given enough time to speculate about the identity of the mysterious killer before the climactic reveal. It’s a jarring contrast when compared to the moaning ambience of X and the jaunty malevolence of Pearl. However, by embracing the atmosphere of voyeuristic thrillers of the ’80s, West crafts something that’s its own entity while complementing what came before.

The allure of celebrity and the dichotomy between Hollywood and pornography have been a persistent undercurrent throughout West’s trilogy. The first two films deftly explored the moral implications of the relentless pursuit of stardom and the desperation that comes with such a singular focus. MaXXXine attempts to develop the themes explored in its predecessors further by deconstructing Hollywood’s objectification and humiliation of women. During her audition for The Puritan II, Maxine is initially criticised for having starred in pornographic films. She silences any doubts about her acting abilities by transforming a monologue into a haunting Shakespearean soliloquy. After wiping away her tears, the producers ask, “Do you mind taking your top off so we can see your breasts?” This brief moment of dark humour highlights the hypocrisy of those who condemn the sex industry but are not above objectifying others for their own amusement.

When Maxine’s work in pornography comes under scrutiny, West gestures towards expanding on the themes explored previously. However, this tension doesn’t remain particularly relevant to the narrative.

An apt description of West’s intentions and ambitions comes during a conversation between Maxine and Bender. While on the set of The Puritan II, the fictional director describes her work as “a B-movie with A ideas.”

Regrettably, the screenplay seems overly focused on the exploitation women endure to find their place in the industry, drowning itself by introducing a procession of “A ideas.” The filmmaker attempts to reflect on the reactionary culture of conservative religion, Hollywood’s destructive relationship with talent, and the harsh realities of unresolved trauma.

Unfortunately, these themes are neither particularly insightful nor as cohesive as X or Pearl.

With an overabundance of elements at play, MaXXXine ultimately emerges unbalanced and brimming with commendable concepts, all marred by mediocre execution.

While not quite scaling the heights of its predecessors, MaXXXine is a thrilling denunciation of what was otherwise a commendable franchise. As a vibrant, sleazy homage to ’80s sexploitation films, and a delicious send-up of the relentless pursuit of fame, the final instalment in West’s trilogy had the potential for greatness. However, a meandering plot and disjointed themes weigh it down. The predictable climax will likely be divisive amongst audiences. Some may find it a fitting conclusion to an exhilarating ride, while others will undoubtedly be left disappointed.

Regardless, West has crafted a remarkable trilogy that functions both as a cohesive narrative and an exploration of various facets of genre filmmaking. Each entry offers a distinct experience, showcasing his versatility as a filmmaker and his keen grasp of the genre.

USA • UK • NEW ZEALAND | 2024 | 104 MINUTES | 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider universal

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Ti West.
starring: Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Kevin Bacon, Michelle Monaghan, Bobby Cannavale, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito & Halsey.