MaXXXine Review: Ode to ’80s Sleaze Completes Stellar Trilogy

There’s a masked, leather-gloved, knife-wielding serial killer stalking the grime-and sleaze-filled streets of Los Angeles in MaXXXine. The film is Ti West’s trilogy capper to 2022’s horror due, X, a 1979-set grindhouse slasher, and its prequel, Pearl. The giallo-inspired killer of MaXXXine specifically targets women that he devalues as “fallen” (e.g., sex workers, porn stars, horror actresses). He resents them for what they represent — the unrestrained expression and centering of female desire, the rejection of male-centered, patriarchal gender norms — and strives to create a climate of fear and among vulnerable women in LA.

Set during the summer of 1985 at the tail end of Porn’s Golden Age (1969-1984) and amid the transition to cut-rate straight-to-video porn, MaXXXine follows X’s lone survivor and popular porn star, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), as she makes onelast bid for mainstream stardom. The setting also evokes the sensationalistic, real-life Night Stalker killings that left Angelenos, especially women, afraid for their lives. Driven, like Pearl (also Goth) in the prequel, Maxine’s fixation with stardom overrides practically every instinct, up to and including her own survival.

As the newly cast lead of MaXXXine’s film-within-a-film horror sequel, The Puritan II, Maxine’s life has taken a turn for the better. While her porn career still makes her persona non-grata among LA’s cultured elites, nothing, not even scattered memories of the so-called “Texas Porn Star Massacre” from X will get in the way of Maxine’s outsized, seemingly unrealistic ambitions. That also means the stardom-obsessed Maxine makes little time for personal relationships (minus one or two exceptions). In an undernourished, running subplot, Maxine willingly takes unofficial lessons in moviemaking from The Puritan II’s director, Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki, sadly underused), the rare woman in Hollywood directing a genre film, let alone two.

Despite Maxine’s desire to leave the past where it belongs (i.e., buried in an unmarked grave or hidden in a decrepit farmhouse), it resurfaces in the form of John Labat (Kevin Bacon, immensely enjoying himself). He’s an amoral private investigator who practically oozes sleaze from every pore of his body. Much to the displeasure of Maxine’s overzealous agent, Teddy Night, Esq. (Giancarlo Esposito), Labat has tied Maxine to her pre-porn, televangelical past and more importantly, the Texas massacre seven years earlier, ominously demanding Maxine pay for her “sins.” Not keen on paying taxes on sin, Maxine’s encounters with Labat become more heated and confrontational.

West deftly interweaves the upward trajectory of Maxine’s career with the murders committed by the masked killer. Each one strikes at someone in Maxine’s circle, and several deaths are possibly connected to the brain-melting Satanic Panic of the era. The crimes also introduce a pair of LA’s finest detectives, Williams (Michelle Monaghan) and Torres (Bobby Cannavale), and Labat’s increasingly tiresome, noxious presence. Each event, individually and collectively, threatens to derail Maxine’s personal and professional ambitions, forcing her to either quit The Puritan II or die trying.

However, the gleeful promise of a string of Bava- or Argento-style kills that are baroquely and intricately staged, shot, and edited for maximum visceral impact, proves to be unfounded. Only one kill technically counts as a giallo-inspired death and it unfolds inside a video store with minimal stalking and much leather-gloved stabbing. The masked killer’s other victims mostly perish offscreen. Presumably, it was West’s choice to minimize onscreen violence against women. In turn, MaXXXine subverts audience expectations, functioning as a critique of giallo’s uncritical embrace of voyeurism and misogyny.

Whatever West’s rationale, MaXXXine lacks the distinct, sustained thrills, suspense, or excitement found in either X or Pearl. It leaves an aftertaste of dissatisfaction and disappointment. The lurid, grisly violence of its predecessors, expertly crafted by practical effects technicians, rarely appears here. Instead, the focus remains singularly on Maxine, her stop-start journey toward self-fulfillment, if not self-actualization, and an all too familiar critique of the Hollywood Dream Factory, its objectification and exploitation of female bodies, and their inevitable rejection.

MaXXXine is now playing in theatres.