Ambition and Repetition Stifle MaXXXine‘s Horror

Movies Reviews Ti West
Ambition and Repetition Stifle MaXXXine‘s Horror

Ti West is a filmmaker difficult to be objective about, or rather, definite in terms of “good” and “bad,” because I often find the ways in which his movies fail just as interesting as how they succeed. His films have become more interesting as films about horror rather than bodily experiences in and of themselves. Part of this is their increasing self-consciousness. X—which spawned the series of Mia Goth vehicles of which MaXXXine is the third (and possibly not final installment)—was a deconstruction of DIY filmmaking ethics not dissimilar to Silver Bullets, a mumblecore horror directed by Joe Swanberg and starring West, which concerned itself with filmmaking ethics, and subsequently (coincidentally) spawned its own trilogy of films chasing that same concern. 

A suspicion I had about X and its prequel Pearl was confirmed by West during a live-streamed Q&A after an advanced screening: X gestated for some time, and Pearl was written and pitched very quickly while the cast & crew were on a two-week lockdown during their entrance to New Zealand during the height of COVID. X, to me, had always felt like the more dense, fleshed-out work, and Pearl the much smaller, looser and spontaneous piece. It seemed that the particulars of Pearl landed better with audiences than the self-examination of X, with the she’s-just-like-me antiheroine of Pearl spawning tons of Halloween costumes. It will be interesting to see if the love of that character will prove to have enough plasticity for people to embrace Pearl’s parallel Maxine in a similar fashion.

MaXXXine opens, like the preceding works, with a The Searchers-like frame-within-a-frame, this time with Goth’s heroine walking into a Hollywood soundstage for an audience. Maxine seems to think she has the stuff, that she’s a star waiting to be made, and Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), the director of the highly anticipated horror sequel The Puritan II, seems to think so as well. Maxine is getting her big shot to break out of the world of adult entertainment, whether that has meant making porno movies like the ill-fated events of X (dubbed the “Texas Porn Star Massacre” in newspaper headlines) or dancing in peep shows on Hollywood Boulevard. But all is not well in Maxine’s rise to stardom: There’s a serial killer all over the news, the Night Stalker, and pieces of Maxine’s past start to show up at her door, along with a mysterious figure cloaked in leather, whose giallo-esque gloved hands can barely withhold a boiling rage. 

The classic West structure is presenting the basis of a genre setup, playing on expectations of whether or not the film is genuinely going to head that direction because of its apparent early banality, and then confirming with a twist that yes, that is where we were headed the whole time. It is modern horror cinema returning to Psycho (and in the case of MaXXXine, this is very literal). Alfred Hitchcock has been and continues to be the key influence on West’s stylings—while X may have basic nods to Tobe Hooper and Pearl declares influence from Douglas Sirk and children’s Technicolor movies, the form is always Hitchock. West always shows the bomb before it blows up. In MaXXXine this renders itself as an encroaching doom; Maxine’s sex worker friends are found murdered right when an apparent stalker (with a lot of knowledge of her pre-porn past) shows up.

Unlike its predecessors, the pastiche in MaXXXine gets dangerous in its anachronisms, going beyond reference within the time and place of the film’s setting. Notably, Maxine’s friend Leon (Moses Sumney) works at a video store under her apartment, and his self-awareness in that position seems all too post-Serial Mom and Scream to maintain an ‘80s aura. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a constant excitement for movies running through all of West’s work, but in a filmgoing era that demands consistency—be that in period details or lore that is built to be fact-checked by countless YouTubers—West being more cinephilic than academic can make him come off as sloppy or pretentious. 

If anything, though, West is doing the opposite of what Quentin Tarantino does in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, wherein Tarantino employs his extraordinary knowledge to make a hyper-specifically textured story to convey his grand narrative of Hollywood history. West clearly cares about on-screen detail being accurate to period texture, or even the way he places and moves the camera, but in the functionality of the story, he allows his broader influences to seep in. More than anything from the ‘80s (well, despite one film that has recently taken on a new popularity in online film spaces, but to mention it would give away the big twist) MaXXXine instead has more in common with the maligned Scream 3, another Hollywood epic of exploitation and self-referential horror that, despite its grandiosity, is ultimately a small film about how the past haunts one girl. 

What often makes West’s movies work is their containment: Upon close inspection, they are extremely tight, often pairing environment with psychological space. This is not in the cliched contemporary way of having the world of the film or specific monster reflect “trauma,” but instead (again, like Hitchcock) having it act as a means of mental problem-solving for the character, as if the film is a psychosis that the characters can either break out of or die in failure. This is the fundamental problem inherent in turning the self-contained X into a sprawling series, as if Maxine Minx was Ti West’s Emmanuelle. X could have been a neat closed loop—with the final reveal being that the preacher that had been on the TV in the old couple’s house was Maxine’s father, making the wider world that the film suggests really just another extension of Maxine as a character. While sprawling the story out, MaXXXine is similarly contained to X, Pearl and all the rest of West’s work (I won’t elaborate more, as it feels like even bringing up this formal observation leads to an obvious spoiler—although, as I said before, the fun with West isn’t the “What’s next?” but the tension of “Is it really going to happen?”). 

To bring it back to Wes Craven, there is a specific contrast between him and West: While they are doing similar exercises in character psychology, their stylings work in opposite directions, budgetarily. Craven didn’t really become Craven until he broke out from the independent world and started working in Hollywood, whereas West’s tight, self-contained narratives work better away from the pressures of larger-scale productions. Regardless, West never leaves a moment dull or a sequence empty. Even when his ambition outpaces his film form and the structure he’s placed upon the series, West is still leaps and bounds ahead of many of his horror peers, who seem content working so hard on constructing aesthetic artifices that they don’t find anything meaningful to fill them with. MaXXXine is iterative to the point that it might be too repetitive of previous entries, but at least it has a good time getting to the point.

Director: Ti West
Writers: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Moses Sumney, Michelle Monaghan, Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Kevin Bacon
Release Date: July 5, 2024

Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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