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(Check out Chris Reed’s MaXXXine movie review, in theaters July 5 via A24. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Writer/director Ti West released two closely related horror films in 2022, X and its prequel, Pearl. Both starred Mia Goth in the lead, playing porn actress Maxine in the first and the titular character of the second. Actually, she played two roles in X, since an older version of Pearl is very much a factor in that initial (though chronologically later) installment. Both movies feature copious guts and gore, along with a sizable chunk of good humor. They are clever and funny with their violence, and when West and his distributor, A24, announced a third chapter, the stage was set for a hopefully wild ride.

Enter MaXXXine, which finds the sole survivor of X now in Los Angeles 6 years later, well away (she believes) from the carnage she successfully navigated back in Texas. Now a top porn star, she drives a white convertible Mercedes with a vanity plate inscribed with the movie’s title, working hard to make sure she has enough put away for when her time in the industry runs out. She’s not getting any younger, after all.

The year is 1985, and West fills the soundtrack with one pop hit from the era after another. He also delivers a gritty and colorful production design befitting the Hollywood of that decade, along with a lot of white powder, Maxine’s favorite pick-me-up. The film feels firmly grounded in time and place, just one of the many great things it has going for it.

Part of that period décor is the presence of the serial killer known as “The Night Stalker,” who killed at least 13 people in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas in 1984 and 1985, marking the murder sites with Satanic symbols. Here, he is very much a part of the background, haunting the narrative with reports of his latest victims. There is vicious savagery afoot, and Maxine soon finds herself in the middle of it.

Before we get there, however, we follow our protagonist on her quest to break free of sex work, auditioning for a role in “The Puritan II,” a sequel to a profitable part one that is the subject of protests, given its apparent demonic storyline. The new movie’s director, Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki, Tenet), is a no-nonsense, somewhat pretentious sort who takes an immediate liking to Maxine’s drive and sincerity, giving her the part over the objections of the producers. It looks like dreams do come true.

Except that it can be hard to outrun the past, which has a habit of coming back for a second round. We’re given a hint of this in the opening prologue, where a young Maxine speaks to her offscreen father, who films her chanting the line, “I will not accept a life I don’t deserve.” Fate, thy will be done.

And so the twin ambitions of a murderous psychopath and our upwardly mobile main character collide, in ways predictable and also far less so. Expect blood, for there will be much of it, though that is not the sole focus of the camera. Instead, we are here for Maxine’s self-actualization. Watching her truly come into her own is the delight of the piece (along with the killer tunes).

Goth is joined in the mayhem by a very game ensemble. Beyond Debicki (quite good in her part), we meet Kevin Bacon (The Toxic Avenger), Bobby Cannavale (Seriously Red), Lily Collins (Mank), Giancarlo Esposito (Abigail), Halsey, Michelle Monaghan (Nanny), Moses Sumney, and others. Goth is herself always extremely watchable, though the writing sometimes doesn’t support her, given the bad decisions the script asks Maxine to make. That’s par for the course with many horror films, or nothing bad would ever happen.

As much as I enjoyed this—and I did—I wish West had instead turned his attention to filling in the gaps of what happened between the timeframes of Pearl and X. To me, that was the logical next step. Oh, well. Some mysteries will forever remain unsolved. At least there’s a good time to be had, along with the awesome music. Go, Maxine, go.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

A24; MaXXXine movie; Ti West

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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