‘MaXXXine’ Review: Throwback Horror Gets a Little Stuck In Its Hot Tub Time Machine

The third of director Ti West's explorations of cinema, sex, violence and the lust for fame imitates its '80s setting a little too well, prioritizing style over substance.

Mia Goth and Halsey in MaXXXine. Justin Lubin/Courtesy of A24

In 2022, A24 and writer-director Ti West delivered the one-two punch of X and Pearl, a pair of horror films about cinema, sex, violence and our cultural lust for fame. Produced back to back on a shoestring budget, the films’ box office success quickly prompted a larger-scale follow-up in MaXXXine, presumably the final chapter in the X trilogy. Though each movie stands on its own, together they create a loose sketch of the evolution of American cinema and its relationship with its audience, with each chapter painted in a style befitting its place in time. X is set in 1979 and follows an unexpectedly ambitious porn production, while Pearl is an origin story for the first film’s villain, a wannabe movie star in 1918. MaXXXine directs its lens at 1980s Hollywood, paying homage to both steamy adult-targeted thrillers and VHS “video nasties.” Though it’s a neat throwback that features a few memorable performances, MaXXXine imitates its period setting a little too well, prioritizing style and adding little substance to the series.

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MAXXINE ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Ti West
Written by: Ti West
Starring: Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Moses Sumney, Michelle Monaghan, Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Kevin Bacon
Running time: 104 mins.

MaXXXine is set in amidst the home-video boom that brought unprecedented prosperity to both the horror and adult film industries. Maxine Minx (Mia Goth, reprising her role from X) has worked tirelessly to conquer the porn world, but her dreams of mainstream stardom may finally be in reach when she lands a leading role in a buzzy studio horror movie. The eve of her big break is haunted by two seemingly unrelated complications. A slimy private detective (Kevin Bacon) is threatening to expose her bloody past, and a serial killer is targeting those closest to her. But Maxine has never let anything stand between her and fame before, and she damn sure won’t let anything stop her now.

This is by far the most flashy and star-studded entry in the X trilogy, with the first two films being produced for a cumulative $2 million dollars. In addition to Goth, whose star has only risen since 2022, the cast of MaXXXine includes Bacon, Elizabeth Debicki, Giancarlo Esposito and recording artist Halsey. Debicki plays to type as the steely and demanding filmmaker behind Maxine’s new movie. Esposito, on the other hand, gets an all-too-rare opportunity to play a broad character role rather than yet another imitation of his Breaking Bad villain Gus Fring. As Maxine’s agent Teddy Night, Esq., Esposito affects what is essentially an Al Pacino impression, and it’s delightful. For his part, Kevin Bacon steals practically all of his scenes as a Louisiana private eye with gold veneers, a thick accent and no scruples.

Kevin Bacon in MaXXXine. Justin Lubin/Courtesy of A24

Though Mia Goth is once again the center of the film, this is her least memorable performance in the trilogy. Maxine is shark-like in her single-minded pursuit of fame, but compared to her unhinged counterpart in Pearl, she’s a relatively bland brand of psycho.

Even more than the other two chapters in the trilogy, MaXXXine imitates the filmmaking style of the era in which it’s set. West recreates the sweaty, voyeuristic erotic thrillers of Brian De Palma and the scale of MaXXXine’s climax has a whiff of Jerry Bruckheimer bluster to it. But beyond its novelty to film nerds (which seems to be the target audience), the ‘80s movie styling has only a handful of benefits. The pastiche provides cover for some very silly moments that one might expect from a Hollywood movie of its era but would be unlikely to accept today. The way that even dead women are judged by their looks in Hollywood movies and the greed-is-good celebration of individual material success invite the audience to note how out of place they seem in today’s cinema.

Giancarlo Esposito and Mia Goth in MaXXXine. Justin Lubin/Courtesy of A24

Otherwise, MaXXXine suffers from being only as interesting as the movies it’s borrowing from. X mimicked the look and next-level violence of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre but added its own layers of shock and depth in its unsettling exploration of geriatric lust and the universal need to feel desired. Pearl’s old-timey aesthetic stood in hilarious contrast with its graphic violence and sexual content, allowing Mia Goth to crank her performance all the way up to a comical extreme. MaXXXine reflects back on the bygone VHS era of cinema and on the Satanic Panic that saw American fundamentalist Christians railing against the “deviants” in Hollywood, but doesn’t appear to have a lot to say about them, at least on first viewing.

In some respects, experiments like MaXXXine offer the same rush of recognition to film buffs that something like The Super Mario Bros. Movie offers to gamers. What you’re excited about isn’t really the content of what you’re watching, it’s the validation of your own expertise. Whether the expertise being validated is urbane or retro, high- or low-brow, it doesn’t necessarily add any real value to the work. Quentin Tarantino’s movies stole shamelessly from a wide swath of sources that were precious to hip cinephiles, but in the end they ossified into something uniquely his. MaXXXine isn’t uniquely anything, and given the memorable weirdness of its predecessors, this is a disappointment.

‘MaXXXine’ Review: Throwback Horror Gets a Little Stuck In Its Hot Tub Time Machine