If knives weren’t already being sharpened for Ti West prior to MaXXXine––the third installment in his X series of exploitation throwbacks––they likely will be at the ready once discerning horror fans experience it. On the surface, this is West returning to the same bloody ground as his terrific 2009 breakout The House of the Devil, only with a much starrier cast in tow for this 1985-set slasher mystery. Like that movie, the backdrop here is Reagan-era Satanic Panic, a fitting bedfellow for a story that begins in the adult entertainment industry––that other key scourge for social conservatives in the decade that style forgot. Wider ties between The House of the Devil and MaXXXine, beyond their shared cultural contexts, are few and far between, yet it’s hard not to regard this movie as something of a self-aware victory lap for its director; West isn’t just returning to a milieu that will remind long-term fans of where it all began, but telling a rags-to-riches Hollywood story that knowingly carves out his place within the genre’s storied history.

What starts as a down-and-dirty exploitation movie à la X, albeit with a giallo-style killer on the loose––unseen but for their black leather gloves––becomes far more brazen in how it wants to be placed on the same level as its totemic influences. To set the scene, Maxine Minx (Mia Goth) is on the cusp of leaving the porn world behind after landing a plum role in The Puritan II, a gothic horror sequel directed by Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki). But this new career path arrives at the same time Maxine begins receiving videotapes from an unknown party claiming to know what she did in Texas several years earlier (revisit X for further details), and several of her colleagues in the porn industry are brutally murdered. The Night Stalker’s killing spree is also taking place at the same time, but nobody can say for sure if the cases are connected––Maxine won’t talk to either the investigators on the case (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan) or the P.I who’s been following her around (Kevin Bacon) on behalf of a mysterious figure that wants to meet her.

These overlapping cases begin intruding on Maxine’s career, and beneath her defiant persona, the horrors of the past are never too far from her mind. And to show this, with his tongue very firmly in cheek, West depicts Maxine on a tour of the Universal lot, outside the Bates Motel, imagining that she’s seeing the ghost of Pearl in the windows of the looming house above, where another cinematic killing spree took place. If directly invoking Psycho will further embolden the horror auteurists who have begun to view West as a hack who adds nothing to his myriad influences, then directly drawing narrative parallels between it and X––which should be uncontroversial on paper, considering the well-trod slasher template Hitchcock forged––will turn them apoplectic. It’s not even the only time a set piece takes us to the Bates Motel, and if such shameless Hitchcock pastiche feels designed to get his biggest critics labeling him a poor man’s Brian De Palma, well, West is self-aware enough to be on the defensive before a single blow has been struck. Why else would there be a Frankie Goes to Hollywood-scored nightclub scene if not to tip the hat to Body Double?

As self-aggrandizing as those homages can often be, they are still largely contained within stylish, tension-building set pieces that help the film maintain momentum. Very shortly into the first act, it becomes clear that this multi-stranded mystery isn’t more expansive than the preceding X films so much as it’s more unfocused, juggling between the adult film world, Hollywood, and the people who detest both in ways that don’t immediately satisfy. The Satanic Panic protests, set up as a key narrative strand via archival footage in the opening credits, aren’t tied into the mystery until act three; they’re invoked in a delightfully gruesome way, yet their belated inclusion suggests they returned to West’s mind as an afterthought.

Much of the middle act is occupied by a cat-and-mouse chase between Maxine and Bacon’s odious good-ole-boy PI John Labat, which is a lot of fun when taken at face value (Bacon’s delightfully hammy performance is hard not to enjoy) but in hindsight plays like a screenplay stalling itself from showing its cards before viewers are given more time to speculate on the identity of the mysterious killer, even though evidence by way of characterization remains fairly thin on the page. Which isn’t to say the characters are particularly thin––some of the sprawling ensemble are used so effectively in their brief appearances that part of me wanted a looser, hangout-movie vibe. This milieu is hardly breaking new ground, and straying further into dark comedy would likely invite unwanted Boogie Nights comparisons, but when performers such as Giancarlo Esposito are allowed to let loose in fun, against-type roles, it’s more joyous than any giallo homage could prove.

Despite being a considerable step down from the Scorsese-approved psychodrama Pearl, there’s an awful lot of fun to be had, from the gruesome kills to the delightfully over-the-top performances (though it should be said Lily Collins’ take on a working-class North Yorkshire accent will likely send British cinemagoers running screaming for the exits). We’re told early on that Cannavale’s cop is a failed actor and Hollywood is paved with the dreams of those who didn’t make it. West takes that literally, affording his cast various overwritten monologues in which their characters sound like they’re earnestly trying to redo the bad audition that sealed their fate. Goth’s Maxine, despite her strength, swagger, and blunt way with words, is one of the more grounded characters here––but then, even as she’s trying to make it in Tinseltown, she’s amongst the few we see not hiding her persona behind layers of artifice, opting for silence when she can’t conform to the role expected of her.

The movie opens with a title card bearing the famous Bette Davis quote: “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.” I imagine this will lead some audiences to expect a full-blown rampage from Goth’s anti-hero, yet the few bursts of violent rage she’s afforded are all justified within the narrative to whatever extent you can justify severe cases of road rage and inflicting genital trauma. She’s not the intense, melodramatic protagonist that Pearl was, nor is she a more conventional scream queen, but what makes her endlessly fascinating to West––to the point that he’s made her his own Antoine Doinel––has got lost behind too many overlapping mysteries and endless gallons of blood.

MaXXXine opens on July 3

Grade: B-

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