MaXXXine review: Mia Goth stuns in this cocaine-fuelled Hollywood slasher

There is little in common between Ti West’s X trilogy of horrors, beyond the cardinal forces of blood, sex, and Mia Goth. X, released in 2022, saw a crew of Seventies pornographers methodically massacred in a Texan farmhouse. It was followed by Pearl, framed as a backstory for X’s youth-obsessed, geriatric villain – but it was really a far more singular (and oddly moving) technicolour tragicomedy about daydreams curdled into butchery. MaXXXine, West’s (for now) final chapter, ties up the story by blasting it across the landscape of Eighties Hollywood, all so he can land one, final embittered joke about America’s twisted moral hierarchy.

MaXXXine is not as good as Pearl, but it is better than X, which fumbled its hag-horror influences (as exemplified by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and its vengeful, elderly violence). This film is nasty, funny, and cogent about the era it’s set in. Maxine Minx (Goth), the sole survivor of X, arrives in Los Angeles to make good on her ambitions and transition from porn to straight cinema, with an eye to becoming the next Brooke Shields. She books the lead role in satanic horror The Puritan II, directed by Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), who dresses like an equestrian and sees in Maxine the chance to imbue her B-movie with genuine, feral femininity.

But Maxine can’t shake what happened in Texas. Maybe it’s the religious guilt, bred into her by her televangelist father. Maybe it’s the bogeyman of then-president Ronald Reagan’s conservative values. She’s disturbed by nightmares and traumatic flashbacks. She’s also stalked by a very real yet mysterious figure in black gloves, inspired by Italy’s “giallo” genre of horror films. Sometimes, in his stead, he sends Kevin Bacon, delivering a wonderfully sleazy performance as private investigator John Labat, issuing warnings that “you can’t buy yourself out of retribution”.

All of LA’s men know who Maxine is but can barely look her in the eye. But she’s found a city that suits her, where the profound and the profane shelter together beneath the neon glare. Here, Wonder Woman flexes her muscles outside of a peep show, and Maxine stubs out her cigarette on the Walk of Fame star belonging to Theda Bara, an icon of silent cinema and the original “vamp”. In the periphery, the real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez, dubbed “the Night Stalker”, enacts his horrifying murder spree. His use of occult imagery only intensified the era’s satanic panic – a moral hysteria that grew so out of control that Christian moralists were wringing their hands over whether Dungeons & Dragons was, in fact, a shortcut to hell.

‘You want to root for Mia Goth’s Maxine’ (A24)
‘You want to root for Mia Goth’s Maxine’ (A24)

“People can protest all they like, but if they looked in the mirror they’d see we all have demons,” Elizabeth laments. And West, also behind MaXXXine’s script, makes the hypocrisy clear when a coroner casually refers to a pair of murdered women as “fresh meat”. But, for the most part, the director’s attacks are made with a wicked smirk – tonally, it’s like someone made a porn parody of a Brian De Palma film. There are testicles stomped on and heads exploded in scarlet-red, visceral detail. Maxine liberally scoops cocaine out of a kitschy, porcelain duck jar. A chase sequence across the Universal Studios backlot ends on the old set of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

At the centre of it all, of course, is Goth. Here, she takes the tender-hearted mania of Pearl and turns it colder, and more determined. As an actor, she’s very good at maintaining the separation between what she wants her audience to see and what she doesn’t. So, though the film celebrates horror’s archetypal “final girl” as an instrument of sheer will, it also complicates her. You want to root for Maxine, yet it’s hard to shake the disquieting feeling of what would happen if you got on her wrong side.

Dir: Ti West. Starring: Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Moses Sumney, Michelle Monaghan, Bobby Cannavale, Halsey, Lily Collins, Giancarlo Esposito, Kevin Bacon. 18, 104 mins.

‘MaXXXine’ is in cinemas from 2 July