In illustrated, news, Review

Original caricature by Jeff York of Mia Goth in MAXXXINE (copyright 2024).

In 2022’s X, filmmaker Ti West delivered a sleeper hit with his clever horror movie entitled X, riffing on both slasher movies and the adult film industry of the 70s. It was scary, funny, and paid superb attention to period details, but mostly, it had British actress Mia Goth (perfect name for such material) playing the protagonist – a budding porn star named Maxine Minx, as well as the antagonist – the crazed old hag named Pearl whose farm they were shooting on and whose sexual longing turned her into a vengeful killer of the crew. I, like many, was hoodwinked totally when the final credits rolled revealing that Goth had played both parts. This was a dual star-turn performed by a mostly unknown actress who deserved all the accolades and fame that come with such a breakthrough. Since then, Goth’s star has continued to rise, particularly through the two follow-ups to what is now a franchise, including the prequel entitled PEARL (2022) and now the newest film called MAXXXINE.

Goth’s high-water mark was playing Pearl in the second film as the backstory of the crazed old lady found motivations in her psychotic youth. Taking place in 2018, Pearl was a young bride fearing for her soldier husband overseas as well as battling forces at home, namely an invalid father and stern, controlling mother. Pearl just wanted some love and she turned to any that could provide it: farm animals, a scarecrow standing in for her husband, and a handsome film projectionist at the local bijou.

 Pearl was already more than a little crazed, but Goth managed to make her not only sympathetic but empathetic. She turned Pearl into perhaps the most tragic fictional killer on screen since Tony Perkins’ earned loads of sympathy from filmgoers with his stunning portrayal of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO in 1960.

West has asked Goth to do similar things with the continuation of her character in this follow-up a decade later. You’ll remember that Maxine was the lone figure standing after all of her colleagues were slaughtered by Pearl as they shot their cheapy porno on her old farmland. Maxine not only managed to turn the tables on the killer, running her down with relish, but she also escaped with nary a soul knowing what happened on that troubled location shoot. That secret drives the plot in MAXXXINE as a secret stalker is after the actress, threatening to expose her homicidal ways, and willing to take out any of her friends standing in the way. As if navigating the seamy underbelly of porn and fame in show biz in the 80s was tough enough for poor Maxine, now she’s dealing with this outsider gunning for her, not to mention the threat of a local serial killer dubbed “The Night Stalker.” Indeed, West mixes reality into his fiction to ratchet up the tension all the more.

The writer/director ladles on the dread throughout this mystery thriller, echoing a lot of the vibe of such straight-to-video fare from that era. West also shrewdly keeps the identity of Maxine’s stalker until the final 20 minutes, keeping us guessing as to who it is and what’s driving his heinous acts.  Goth plays the victim very well throughout, fighting off a sleazy private eye (Kevin Bacon, chewing the scenery with relish), a couple of intrepid LA detectives (Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan), and all kinds of pervs and weirdos after her. One set-piece has her battling a Hollywood Blvd. celebrity impersonator playing Buster Keaton and it’s both grotesque and hilarious. As often, this film is.

The filmmakers nail the 80s ethos throughout as well with expert period costuming, production design, the choice of electronica on the soundtrack, and even its photographic style. West has his cinematographer Eliot Rockett film the movie in a slicker, smokier way as was the wont in that era. It’s all so effective that at times you may think that Brian De Palma made this instead of West. West’s homage to the 80’s “master of the macabre” reaches its zenith with knowing nods to DePalma’s obsession with Hitchcock vis a vis numerous references to PSYCHO. When Maxine is hired for the lead in a legit film, the production is being helmed by an auteur director (Elizabeth Debicki) right on the Universal lot, a stone’s throw away from the creepy motel and house erected for PSYCHO that still stand for the tourists.

The parallels continue with Maxine seeming to be of two personalities, much like Norman Bates and his ‘motherly’ alter ego. On the one hand, Maxine plays the put-upon ingenue fighting the good fight against a sexist and dismissive Hollywood machine, while at other times, she’s a vicious protagonist taking out her attackers with zest. The Jekyll & Hyde slice of MAXXXINE gives the film its verve and allows Goth to strut her stuff, including a one-take audition in the first scene that dazzles as much for showing Maxine’s talent as it does for reminding us of Goth’s.

Yet because Maxine is shown to be so smart, talented, and fearless, her survival never really seems to be in question. That’s not the best look for a stalker horror film. Such truths aren’t helped either by a less-than-satisfying reveal of the creep after her. Amazingly, West fails to make more out of the presence of the genuine Night Stalker character terrorizing LA at the time, relegating serial killer Richard Ramirez to little more than updating blurbs on the nightly news.

West is suggesting here that there’s little difference between the skin trade, mainstream Hollywood, and the threat of serial killers, basically that they’re all ruthless and victimize young women. That’s not the freshest POV, as indeed De Palma regularly stated such themes in his work 40 years ago, but it still comes through with each frame of MAXXXINE.

If West and Goth continue to ply the character for more stories, it might behoove them to showcase just how Maxine navigates her fame, or the loss of it when she ages. Show biz isn’t kind to actresses past 30, so what would Maxine’s take on all that be? Would she fight the good fight, trying to hang on either in front of the camera or behind it? Or would she be coming after those slamming doors in her face, fangs out?  I could see Maxine becoming a formidable killer herself, like Pearl, like Ramirez, creating even bloodier versions of Norma Desmond or Baby Jane.

Whatever happened to Maxine Minx?

Now, there’s a sequel.

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