Home » Third time’s the charmless for ‘MaXXXine’ and Ti West’s horror trilogy

Third time’s the charmless for ‘MaXXXine’ and Ti West’s horror trilogy

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“MaXXXine” is the third in Ti West’s lovingly retro trilogy of horror films that began with “X” and “Pearl” (both 2022). Sadly, it’s the first to disappoint.

Even by the meta-standards of the past decade’s horror renaissance, those initial two movies were special — gory, funny, smart, unnerving. With its tale of a low-budget rural porn shoot that turns into a bloodbath, “X” aped the faded 16mm film stock of the 1970s and the gritty shock of Me Decade drive-in classics like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” “Pearl” was even more striking: The backstory of the first film’s elderly psycho killer, it takes place in 1918, at the dawn of Hollywood and our culture’s delusional dreams of stardom — of being seen. Both films raised actress Mia Goth — who co-wrote “Pearl” with West and co-produced “Pearl” and “MaXXXine” — to a new level of pop visibility, and for good reason: She’s the body, brains and subversive soul of the series.

Not to mention the survivor. Having played both the desperate-to-be-famous porn newbie Maxine Minx and the ancient murderess Pearl in “X,” and having played Pearl as a young Lizzie Borden in the making in “Pearl,” Goth begins “MaXXXine” in 1985 Hollywood, where Maxine has become an established player in the booming adult video industry. She’s eager to go legit, though, and early in the film aces an audition to play the lead in a horror movie being directed by the fearsome British auteur Liz Bender (Elizabeth Debicki, towering over her co-stars like an ominous giraffe).

We’re in the era of the satanic panic, with the Moral Majority protesting Bender’s production outside the studio gates and a serial killer dubbed the Night Stalker leaving a trail of mutilated corpses all around town. After two stripper acquaintances of Maxine’s are murdered, a pair of police detectives (Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale) start hovering, but the heroine is leery of cops for reasons apparent to anyone who saw “X.”

Where that first film was grounded in the looks, sounds and feel of low-budget ’70s schlock, “MaXXXine” is bound to the aesthetics of 1980s B-movies: big hair, tinny synthesizers, cheap production values and a sleazy sadism that plays like the dark side of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. This movie’s antecedents were all over pay cable’s late-night schedule in 1985, and to be perfectly blunt, they had an unpleasant buzz. (A proposed theory: Hollywood was running on cocaine in the ’80s, whereas ’70s filmmaking was mostly weed-based.)

The casting’s fine: Chloe Farnworth and Halsey exude the proper Skinemax vibe as ladies of the evening, and Giancarlo Esposito rocks an excellent toupee as Maxine’s agent, loyal to the bloody end. The gifted soul singer Moses Sumney turns up as the heroine’s best friend, a video store manager with a taste for grade-Z horror films like “The Great Alligator” (Italy, 1979). And while this is the second new release this week to feature Kevin Bacon (the other is “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F”), it’s the only one in which he seems to be having any fun, as a Southern-fried private detective on Maxine’s sanguine trail.

You know who’s not having any fun? Goth’s Maxine, who in the new film has lost the steely agency she showed in “X” and is subject to gruesome flashbacks, panic attacks and the fact that she’s being shadowed by a killer (who may or may not be the killer; it’s confusing). In a possible nod to Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill” (1980), we only see the stalker’s black leather gloves, but his identity will be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention. Is that West’s way of mocking the genre, or is it just bad writing? It’s impossible to tell, and that’s a problem.

Weighed down by too many plot strands, “MaXXXine” ultimately collapses in an over-the-top climax set in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, followed by a showdown at the Hollywood sign. The film was mostly shot on the old Universal lot, using only cameras and equipment that would have been available in the 1980s, and period fetishism seems to have trumped basic dramatic coherence.

The themes that bubbled half-articulated under “X” and “Pearl” — of the need for stardom as an extension of a homicidal ego, of America as a place in which a woman’s sole value is being looked at — go off the rails with, among other things, some easy potshots at televangelism and the madness of cults. The problem with making homages to junky genre movies is that sometimes you just end up with a junky genre movie.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use. 104 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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