• Sat. Jul 20th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

“Marge, I’m confused. Is this a happy ending or a sad ending?”
“It’s an ending, that’s enough!”

The Simpsons (1989) – S05E04

I know this wasn’t sustainable. We couldn’t possibly expect Ti West and Mia Goth to keep surprising us forever. But X and Pearl were nothing if not surprising. They were both so unique and so superbly made, nobody ever saw them coming, certainly not back-to-back in the same year! Just last week, I was holding out hope for another end-credits stinger to catch us off guard with another surprise, but no, this does appear to be the end of the line.

It’s for the best, really. Even if this last movie flops (and it probably won’t), West and Goth already delivered two of the decade’s watershed works of cinematic horror. Between that massive success and their established taste in the off-kilter, I’m excited to see what they do next.

But first, they’re closing out the trilogy with MaXXXine, in which we pick back up with Maxine Fucking Minx (Goth) and her ongoing chase for stardom. Though I’ve gotta be honest, I had mixed feelings about the prospect of a third movie.

Part of the reason why the X/Pearl duology worked so well is because of how they reflected each other so perfectly. It was fascinating to see how the past and present informed each other, how Maxine and Pearl were two sides of the same coin. In a twisted way, the antagonists of X are more relatable with the understanding of the beauty they’ve lost and the ambitions that died as they grew older. The two films do so much to enhance each other in a way that doesn’t seem to leave much room for a third wheel.

On the other hand, this is very much a film about retro cinema, sexuality, and vice. We got the silent porno films quietly circulating beneath the Golden Age glitter and glamor. We got the indie filmmakers of the late ’70s making shoestring porno films under the radar. And now we’ve got a film about the wave of ’80s sex-fueled slashers that came out in the wake of Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on. It makes all kinds of sense for this series to go there.

Moreover, this was also the time of the time of Richard Ramirez, A.K.A. the “Night Stalker”, a serial killer known for raping and murdering numerous women from 1984 up until he was captured in August of 1985. In 1989, he was convicted of thirteen counts of murder, five attempted murders, eleven sexual assaults, and fourteen burglaries. He was sentenced to death, and still sitting on Death Row when he finally died in 2013.

And here we have a movie in which these real-life murders are highly fictionalized as part of a slasher movie plot. Talk about a dicey proposition. Not that anyone cares about how Ramirez is portrayed — fuck that psychopath — but his victims are certainly due some modicum of respect. Especially since there’s a good chance some of their surviving families and loved ones are still with us.

Luckily, the filmmakers are clever enough to sidestep the whole issue. Without going too deeply into spoilers, it becomes obvious pretty much immediately that the killer in our story is not the actual Night Stalker, but a copycat taking advantage of the ongoing murder spree. Quite a brilliant solution, really. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, what has Maxine been up to these past few years? Well, she’s established herself quite comfortably in L.A., still stripping, and making quite an impressive career for herself as a porn star. Trouble is, she’s approaching her mid-30s and acutely aware that her porn career has a shelf life. Thus Maxine has steadily kept up auditions for straight films in the hope that somebody will give a porn actor a crossover hit. It’s a tall order, as you can imagine. But then Maxine gets lucky.

See, this is also the era of the Satanic Panic, the Moral Majority, Reagan and all his Evangelical voter base crusading against Dungeons & Dragons and death metal and rap music and so on. Enter Elizabeth Bender (Elizabeth Debicki), a badass auteur who struck massive box office gold and pissed off evangelicals all over the world with The Puritan, a possession horror movie. And now Bender is doubling down for the sequel, hiring Maxine — a porn star! — to headline as the lead actor.

But wait, there’s more!

Kevin Bacon plays John Labat, an amoral private investigator who’s been hired to track down Maxine. Our final girl is of course hesitant to go along with this stranger, but there’s a significant wrinkle in that John has somehow gotten his hands on the footage from “The Farmer’s Daughters”. Thus John and his anonymous client have the necessary proof to tie Maxine to the events of X, the mysterious “Porn Star Massacre” of 1979, and the unsolved murders of Pearl and Howard.

Complicating matters even further, all of this is going on while the Night Stalker is at large. What’s worse, some of Maxine’s friends turn up brutally murdered with satanic imagery cut and/or burned directly into their flesh, playing into the media frenzy around the purportedly devil-worshipping Night Stalker. But as I alluded to earlier, the LAPD figures out quickly that this isn’t the real Night Stalker, but someone trying to frame Maxine and tie her into the greater crime spree. Not that it stops the police from doing their due diligence and trying to ask Maxine some questions.

Off the bat, I’m happy to report that this is by far the most effective slasher horror of the trilogy. The kills are gruesomely effective, they’re well-paced, and there’s a nice mix of genuinely sympathetic victims with the cathartic hate sinks. It certainly helps that while this is a Final Girl who’s visibly tougher and more courageous after the events of the first movie, she’s also been left with some mental/emotional trauma to serve as a reminder that Maxine is in fact mortal.

However, the strongest thematic point of the previous two films was in the contemplation of aging and the passage of time. It was so crucial for all of the main characters to gather rosebuds while they may, enjoying their youth and beauty and sex drive before they’re all irretrievably gone. I guess the last two films got down everything the filmmakers had to say on the topic, because it’s wholly absent here.

That said, it was always a related point that the prudes and naysayers are hypocrites, actively despising themselves and sex workers — or anyone deemed as “whores” — for the undeniable primal urges of sex. The theme isn’t as prominent here as in the previous two films, but, uh… let’s just say that given certain revelations about Maxine’s father (a returning Simon Prast), a select few scenes might bring the concept into sharp focus on rewatch.

However, while this entry jettisons certain established themes, it compensates by doubling down on others. In particular, the setting and the premise mean this film goes much, MUCH deeper into examining vice on film and moral hypocrisy in culture. It certainly helps that so much of the film is set on a studio lot, with all sorts of different sets and facades to illustrate the point, and also to spice up a memorable chase sequence. And of course we can’t forget our antagonist: As the mad televangelist who just happens to be Maxine’s cruel and estranged father, he’s the perfect embodiment of everything our protagonist is fighting against and everything this movie rejects.

But the real MVP here is Debicki, capably playing a stone-cold Bitch In Charge. She’s a bona fide artist who fought her way to the top, and she’s doing her best to help other fresh-faced young women up to join her at the top, but not at the expense of her movie. She firmly believes that smut and art are not contradictory, and she refuses to let small-minded idiots get in her way. Hell, if she can harness the anger of those small-minded idiots to help push people out of their comfort zones toward a productive end, so much the better.

With this character, Debicki presents our lead character and the entire series with something they’ve never had before: A positive role model. And Debicki freaking sells herself as the film’s ideal.

Elsewhere, the cast is rock-solid. Of course Mia Goth fucking crushes it, but we’ve also got the aforementioned Debicki owning the screen, plus Giancarlo Esposito doing what he does best. Simon Prast and Kevin Bacon both play fantastic hate sinks. Halsey and Lily Collins turn in brief but commendable performances. Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Canavale are stuck with the thankless jobs of playing the inept cops, but they’re both acting their asses off.

This movie had me… and then it lost me. At the last possible minute.

It sucks that I’m limited by spoilers, so I’m sorry I can’t go into too much detail about my issues with the ending. What I can tell you is that from start to finish, Maxine is clearly established as a coke-snorting porn star who will fuck or murder anyone for her own fame and fortune. This character was never built to be wholly sympathetic, but the filmmakers seem to think she is. In addition, the filmmakers seem to have forgotten that Maxine is the type who can never be satisfied with what she has. Who is Maxine after she’s achieved her dream of stardom? What’s left of Maxine when she doesn’t have to keep running from her past anymore?

When the time finally comes to address those questions, the filmmakers come up with a big fat zero. I get that the filmmakers wanted to wrap up all of Maxine’s loose ends in a satisfying way. But given the nature of this genre and this protagonist, I’d argue — as paradoxical as it sounds — that a satisfying ending wasn’t what this series needed.

Overall, MaXXXine is a good movie, but not as good as the two films before it. Though considering how good those other two films are, that’s not saying much. The kills and the performances are more than enough to make this a decent slasher horror, and enough loose ends are tied up that fans of X will find this worth watching. But for a trilogy capstone — especially this particular trilogy — this one needed to be something transcendent, and the movie falls short of that level. Though maybe that level was never reasonable to begin with.

At any rate, it’s a good enough movie to check out. Maybe wait until home video, but definitely check it out.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

Leave a Reply