Everywhere Maxine goes, men recognize her — but only men. No wonder; Miaxine is a porn star and men are her target audience. But recognition by skeezy dudes is not what Maxine craves. She wants to be really famous. She often repeats a mantra: “I will not accept a life I do not deserve.” And Maxine is firmly convinced that she deserves more.

One wonders whether there is a little of Maxine’s creator, Ti West, in that sentiment. In his latest film about her — his third to date featuring his smoldering starlet, Mia Goth — West has a frustrated horror director, played by Elizabeth Debicki, announce her intentions to make “a B movie with A ideas,” a concept West himself has been chasing for years.

Sure enough, MaXXXine is another horror film with lofty ambitions. It fuses a pastiche of ’80s slashers with commentary on the slightly-less-literally cutthroat world of the movie business. West might not get all the way to his goal — MaXXXine is more of a B movie with B+ ideas — but the effort is still commendable nonetheless.

The Puritan II
A24
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West introduced Maxine in X, his 2022 horror film about aspiring pornographers in the 1970s who come under attack from a demented old woman (also played by Goth, who has the best name in contemporary horror) and her devoted husband. Next came the prequel Pearl, with Goth as X’s murderer in her younger days pursuing her own dreams of movie stardom 100 years ago. Now comes MaXXXine, with the title character settled in Hollywood in 1985, where she desperately tries to grab a piece of “the good life” she has always craved since she was a little girl.

To that end, Maxine auditions for a role in the sequel to a successful but controversial horror movie called The Puritan. Its director, Elizabeth Bender (Debicki), sees something in Maxine. Despite her salacious resume (or maybe because of it?), Elizabeth casts Maxine in a key role.

Her timing is fortuitous. (Or maybe ominous?) While protestors picket outside the film studio gates, a serial killer dubbed “The Night Stalker” is on the loose in Los Angeles. The Satanic overtones of his crimes echo the onscreen killings in The Puritan. And wouldn’t you know it? As pre-production ramps up, friends of Maxine’s start turning up dead, branded with pentagrams. Is life imitating art in the darkest of ways?

The Puritan II
A24
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The premise of a mad slasher stalking the star of a mad slasher movie gives West license to make his most meta horror movie yet. He liberally borrows from the classics; some De Palma split screens here, some giallo-style cinematography there. One chase scene winds through the Universal backlot, where Maxine dashes through the Western town from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and then winds up at the Bates Motel from Psycho, where she’s stalked by a sleazy private eye (a Southern fried Kevin Bacon) with a bandage on his nose like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. Given that West’s breakthrough movie as director was another ’80s Satanic panic pastiche, 2009’s The House of the Devil, West might even be paying homage to himself at some points here.

The references fly around constantly, but they don’t add up to a whole lot more than a series of Easter eggs for horror devotees. If West did have big ideas in mind here beyond a very mild critique of Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for young talent (and that young talent’s corresponding hunger for fame) it didn’t come across. And the ultimate revelation of the Night Stalker’s identity, while logical in retrospect, is also a bit of a letdown.

The Puritan II
A24
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The moments in MaXXXine that break through the clutter of callbacks are very similar to the best ones in and Pearl: The scenes where West gets out of the way and puts the spotlight on Goth (sometimes literally, in this case). With her slight frame and a face dotted with beauty marks, Maxine makes an unconventional yet undeniably compelling horror heroine. In an early sequence, Maxine winds up walking home alone at night and gets accosted by a man inexplicably dressed like Buster Keaton. She turns the tables on her attacker — and all throughout the film Maxine refuses to play the role of the stereotypical horror victim in need of rescue. That’s good, because the cops trying to solve the Night Stalker killings, played by Michelle Monaghan and Bobby Cannavale, are largely useless and deployed mostly as comic relief.

MaXXXine looks good and it sounds great. (Its soundtrack of moody pop hits is destined to be played at ’80s horror themed Halloween parties until the end of time.) West clearly understand this era and the kinds of horror hits it produced. He’s got a compelling leading lady and creative partner in Goth. But something still seems to be missing.

West does so much winking at the audience that he doesn’t leave much time to gaze into the darkness the way a truly scary horror movie does; MaXXXine’s moments of shock are surprisingly few and far between. As a result MaXXXine is rarely as disturbing or as effective as the earlier films in this series. I guess you could say it seems to be missing an X factor.

RATING: 6/10

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