‘MaXXXine’ Closes Ti West’s Slasher Trilogy With ‘80s Nostalgia and Campy Madness

A perfect sequel is hard to pull off, even less a perfect trilogy. Ti West has been aiming for horror gold with his slasher passion project that opened already going for broke. The first two films, “X” and “Pearl,” premiered six months apart from each other in 2022 with impressive results. While they riffed on ‘70s porn and technicolor melodramas, West went beyond mere aesthetic exercises. There was psychological depth to the horror, which added to their eerie effect. Now, he dives into ‘80s nostalgia with “MaXXXine,” presumably the concluding chapter. West’s feverish approach heightens a third chapter not superior to its predecessors, but effective as a campy, bloody climax. 

Mia Goth remains the muse at work, shifting chameleon-like again into a new setting for her character, Maxine. We first met her in “X” in 1979, when she nearly survived the murderous rampage that killed the porn crew she was shooting with in a rural Texas farm. She was desperate for fame then and is now closer to the dream in 1985 Los Angeles. With only adult films in her resume, Maxine needs a respectable breakthrough. Her agent, Teddy Knight (Giancarlo Esposito), calls with the amazing news that Maxine has scored an audition for a horror film, “The Puritan II.” The director is a no-nonsense perfectionist, Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki). Meanwhile, the city is gripped with fear over the Night Stalker killings, and soon enough, a possible new murderer emerges killing specific victims connected to Maxine.

What connected “X” and its prequel, “Pearl,” theme-wise was the plight of its killer, Pearl (also played by Goth). In the first film, she was an elderly woman driven mad by carnal desires. “Pearl” then gave us her backstory in a stunning homage to classic melodramas, revealing her days as a young woman in 1918 living in the grip of a conservative household. “MaXXXine” is the first entry to pick up after “X,” taking its hero close to her biggest wish. If West is exploring anything here, it’s how the past is hard to push away and that eternal lesson in the price of seeking fame for its own sake. Some of the period nostalgia feels all too familiar. The needle drops are typical, like Animotion’s “Obsession.” He does find a strobing, sweaty club scene for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” that channels ‘80s debauchery well. There is also the use of VHS textures and neon lighting with darker edge by cinematographer Eliot Rockett, avoiding the sunnier clichés seen in shows like “Stranger Things.”

The Los Angeles of “MaXXXine” is Reagan-era grime, which is more than suitable. Despite what the title may hint, West doesn’t pay much attention to the porn angle this time around. The story isn’t about sex anymore and keener on Maxine’s obsessive drive. Since the real motivations for Maxine are rather shallow, the plot feels hollower. The stronger dramatic material deals with Maxine feeling the pressure of an environment many want to enter without realizing its grueling nature. Debicki is definitely borrowing from people she’s met when playing Bender, who doesn’t suffer fools and bluntly tells Maxine what the job requires. She’s not exaggerating at all when she demands punctuality, notices Maxine is distracted by something happening outside of set, but simply tells her to take care of it. Instead of feeling like pure satire, there’s sincerity to Bender admitting “The Puritan II” is schlock, yet it matters so as a woman, she can climb higher.

Such story elements are no doubt very personal to West, who excels at making elevated grindhouse. “X” and “Pearl” were artful but also gruesomely funny. “MaXXXine” is shot with dark gloss that combines more gore with noir clichés molded for the West universe. In an early scene, Maxine is approached by a creep with a knife in a dark alley. The danger ends when Maxine obliterates the attacker’s testicles with her boot heel. The camera even closes in. Her mysterious pursuer slices and dices victims before branding them with a pentagram. Kevin Bacon, who has been relishing in playing scumbags recently, drops in as John Labat, a scruffy private investigator snooping around Maxine’s life for a secret client. Her past from “X” is coming back to haunt her in a particular way that won’t be surprising for fans who remember one of the very last reveals in the movie. All the while, West indulges in commenting on the hand that feeds him. Actresses are invited to secretive parties in the Hollywood Hills, at mansions hiding in the dark with dangerous temptations. A running subtext is the degradation of women by the industry. In many ways, it’s even more perilous for Maxine. To be a porn star in 1985 meant the door to mainstream roles was beyond shut with very few exceptions.

Other characters like Detectives Torres (Bobby Cannavale) and Williams (Michelle Monaghan) seem to be included as required tools to make the plot move along. The pair investigates the ongoing murders and happens to find a copy of “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the porn film involving Maxine in “X.” Later, they only function to pop in when necessary to save someone with the right gunshot. It is the third movie syndrome where West’s concept starts struggling with truly concluding the arc of the last two films. However, it still works because he retains the unnerving, even human substance. When the big killer is revealed, the situation becomes more about Maxine being a particular kind of child running away from home. Like Pearl, she was entrapped in a suffocating environment and jumped into the abyss to get out. There’s genuine tragedy in the final kill instead of pure, gratuitous gore.

These days it’s still too early to say West’s vision is “complete.” Success has a funny way of kickstarting further movies in any franchise. For now, there’s no denying that as a horror director, West has delivered a memorable magnum opus. The best of the three is surely “Pearl,” with its enveloping style and a searing performance by Mia Goth, who is the real showcase of all these films. In “MaXXXine” she elevates the material by evoking blind ambition as a mask for deep wounds. Maxine is always running, even when she gets what she wants. Plenty of those who are lucky enough to make it are also unlucky in all the battle scars and closet skeletons. “MaXXXine” is made by someone who loves movies while being fascinated by the disturbed psyches behind the lens. Despite its slight faults, this is a worthy finale that can cut deeper than another rehashed slasher.

MaXXXine” releases July 5 in theaters nationwide.