By Lynn Venhaus

Slashy and trashy, “MaXXXine” falls short of the thrills that made Ti West’s “X” and “Pearl” superior horror films in 2022.

The time is 1985 and the place is TinselTown. Adult film star Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), flush with success from the porn video biz, finally gets her big break in a horror movie. But the fame she craves can be snuffed out quickly because a mysterious killer stalks Hollywood starlets, and she wants to find out who is trying to thwart her crossover career by revealing her sinister past.

Despite West’s flair for retro genre pieces, this third installment starring Mia Goth lacks a compelling and cohesive story. For someone who pushes horror movies forward with an unmistakable style, this doesn’t offer anything fresh and feels forced.

Sure, there’s more money, more star power, excessive blood and gore, and heaps of chutzpah – but homages to schlocky 1980s horror movies can only sustain West’s sprawling plot so far.

It’s too large of a canvas to get invested in any of the ‘decent’ characters, although the elegant and statuesque Elizabeth Debicki adds class as a ruthless female director trying to make her mark in a misogynous industry.

Not only is it the weakest in the trilogy, but do we want to continue beyond the final frame? As it turns out, the big reveal is lame, and its sanctimonious angle took a long time limping to its ridiculous conclusion even for an hour and 44-minute runtime.

Moses Sumney as Leon, Maxine’s best friend.

Of course, with horror movies, logic goes out the window. Oh sure, purposely strut down a creepy pitch-black alley and walk into a dark mansion for the first time where you know nobody, and it sure doesn’t sound like a party is going on!

We experience the all-too-familiar tropes, but we have plot threads that leave us hanging, and there should have been a more satisfying turn, especially with all of West’s bag of tricks.

The self-righteous morality police have always been squeaky wheels, and seem like an easy, predictable target. Oh, religious zealots are offended by Hollywood smut?

The buddy cop dynamic of Bobby Cannavale and Michelle Monaghan was sadly under-used, the very real Night Stalker serial killer slayings wound up to be a red herring, and Maxine’s friends and colleagues were picked off in alarming fashion without much reason to care.

With Goth, you have a fascinating leading lady – a cold-blooded narcissistic sociopath that is so focused on fame that her moves are jaw-dropping (and ultimately made me too queasy to root for her success or redemption or comeuppance). Yay to cruelly chopping off man parts and crushing skulls?

Mia Goth as Maxine Minx

The violence is gruesome – and to be fair, there were ‘eyes-closed’ moments in the first two, too, but it was horrifyingly presented. (I know it’s a horror movie, duh, but sometimes restraint is more effective.)

To see such deviant behavior from a young girl so sick and twisted in “X” and “Pearl,” you wanted to know how she got that way. Here it seems like a contest – how sleazy and disgusting can we get? And did anyone else get a “Scream 3” vibe as well as throwbacks to Brian DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill” and “Body Double”?

In this installment, preacher’s daughter Maxine is just as self-absorbed and demented as she was before, a continuation of her character’s evil nature, a la “The Bad Seed” and Damian in “The Omen.” There is nothing new to add. If you’re making her into a Scream Queen, then shouldn’t it be scarier?

Nevertheless, West has surrounded his muse with a fine cast of characters. Kevin Bacon chews the scenery as a scummy private detective from Louisiana that underestimates what a disturbing lethal weapon she is. Giancarlo Esposito, in a goofy toupee, is hilariously over-the-top as her bulldog agent-lawyer.

The use of cocaine, such a part of hedonistic Hollywood, is omnipresent, but there are no consequences? Everyone who succumbed back then finally had to pay the piper, but we don’t get anywhere near that cause-and-effect.

While being very entrenched into that ‘80s mindset, the film’s intention does resemble the current ‘I wanna be a star’ social media influencer and celebrity culture obsessions.

In the West universe, there is no such thing as “be careful what you wish for,” only rewards, which makes Maxine even more terrifying. In “X,” she survived a Texas-chainsaw type massacre in the ‘70s, and “Pearl” was a grotesque backstory of a hyper-sexed homicidal maniac.

However, West being a master at atmosphere, his setting much of the action on a Hollywood backlot, specifically the Universal Studios tour – that ‘Psycho’ house! – is fabulous eye candy, thanks to production designer Jason Kisvarday (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”).

Kevin Bacon as Louisiana private detective.

And the seedy Hollywood Boulevard scenario from that period is realistic, especially embodied by Moses Sumney’s Leon, who works at a video store.

Perhaps it’s a little too on-the-nose, as is the soundtrack’s use of “Bette Davis Eyes.” However, the soundtrack is one of the more pleasant notes here, and so is composer Tyler Blake’s eerie score.

West’s skillful use of visual styles is another strong suit, collaborating with his “X” and “Pearl” cinematographer Eliot Rockett, and he edited the film too. And his wit is undeniable – clever use of comic relief, particularly pop culture jabs of the day.

I never thought of West as someone who played it safe. He offers this Bette Davis quote at the start: “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.”

OK, point taken. Let’s move on. I think this story has run its course.

“MaXXXine” is a 2024 horror film directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Elizabeth Debicki, Kevin Bacon, Giancarlo Esposito, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Monaghan, Moses Sumney, Halsey, Lily Collins, and Simon Prast. It is rated R for strong violence, gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use, and has a 1 hour, 44-minute runtime. It opened in theatres July 5. Lynn’s Grade: C-.

By Alex McPherson

Bolstered by a towering performance from Mia Goth, director Ti West’s “Pearl” is a captivating, upsetting, and idiosyncratic horror drama that rivals the brilliance of “X” while standing on its own as a discomforting character study.

Described as a prequel to West’s “X,” released this spring, “Pearl” takes place in rural Texas during the height of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. A young woman named Pearl (Goth) lives on a homestead with her domineering mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland), who cannot move or speak and requires constant attention. Pearl’s husband, Howard, is overseas fighting in the first World War, leaving Pearl confined to the farm with only cows, geese, and one very hungry reptile to keep her company. She dreams of becoming a movie star and leaving her former life behind to chase fame and glory, to Ruth’s disdain. 

But all’s not well in paradise. During the film’s hyper-stylized introduction — complete with a sweeping orchestral score, title cards, and camerawork showcasing an idyllic environment bursting with vivid colors with the sun beaming above (the same farm from “X,” in fact, immediately prompting uneasiness) — Pearl dances before an audience of farm animals… only to be interrupted by a goose who waddles into the barn. She calmly stabs it with a pitchfork and feeds it to her “pet” crocodile in the nearby swamp, as one does.

Not allowed to leave the farm, except to pick up medicine for her father, Pearl nevertheless stops by the cinema in town and becomes enraptured by the dancers on screen. She bumps into the charismatic yet manipulative projectionist (David Corenswet), who insists that she’s got what it takes to be up there one day. Pearl’s sister-in-law, Misty (Emma Jenkins-Purro), stops by with her mother to drop off a roast suckling pig — which Ruth refuses to accept, leaving the gnats to consume it on the front porch — and informs Pearl of tryouts for a local dancing troupe, potentially giving her the chance to finally prove her talent. With her heart racing and Ruth growing increasingly hostile, tensions continue to escalate, reaching a fever pitch that results in copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears, as Pearl most certainly will not take no for an answer. 

Eschewing the throwback ‘70s thrills of “X,” “Pearl” works as a poignant, legitimately disturbing drama, where viewers are encouraged to understand what drives its troubled heroine to murder, all while encountering three-dimensional characters that live and die in shades of gray (and red).

From the very beginning, West establishes an off-kilter world of juxtaposition and the harmless-turned-sinister. “Pearl” resembles a technicolor dreamscape popping with color and warm hues, belying a dark heart — grafting grotesque displays of violence, mental illness, and the absolute darkest humor onto bucolic surroundings. The glossy haze of Old Hollywood combines with sparkles of Pearl’s demented edges — lurid fever-dream hallucinations, victims’ faces reappearing unexpectedly — to chilling effect.

The true star of “Pearl,” though, is Goth (also a producer and co-writer), who imbues a devastating sense of humanity into the character — everything always seems genuine, from heartbreak to fearsome outbursts. Pearl, despite her exaggerated actions, still feels like a grounded human being, held back by her parents and destructive proclivities, attempting to seize a moment to break free from her restrictive world and essentially be reborn. Goth is astonishing, conjuring feelings of sorrow and disquietude in equal measure. One six-minute-plus monologue near the finale, for example, is one of the best acting showcases of 2022 thus far. Viewers witness Pearl experience an unpredictable storm of emotions, emerging as broken and as frightening as ever. Indeed, West isn’t afraid to plant the camera for extended dialogue-driven scenes, where viewers observe her transformation from jovial and upbeat to hurt and volatile first-hand. It’s both dreadfully suspenseful and darkly funny. 

The side characters are also given unexpected depth. Ruth, a German immigrant who’s had to sacrifice to provide for the family (caring for her sick husband, who she can never abandon, and guarding against the virus raging everywhere), is weathered by trauma — projecting her insecurities onto Pearl, while also being unsure how to ultimately keep her under control. One fraught dinner sequence in particular, largely lit by flashes of lightning, positions her as a villain — yet, here, again, “Pearl” eerily subverts expectations by putting us in Pearl’s headspace and breaking with a thornier reality. 

Sunderland does so much with his eyes alone as Pearl’s father — a man imprisoned by illness, unwillingly trapping others to be guardians, and existing at the whims of their crumbling psyches. Jenkins-Purro is similarly strong as Misty, a poor soul too naive and clueless for her own good. Corenswet brings both a charm and sly malevolence to the unnamed projectionist with questionable intentions.

Like with “X,” West interrogates ideas of how ambition, youth, and delusion can warp and fragment, as well as the connection between sex and violence. Sex becomes another facet of Pearl’s extreme rebellion against her “world” and everyone within it, paired with vicious carnage.

Although the last moments leave a few too many unanswered questions, “Pearl” is brilliant for its empathy, scares, stylization, and top-notch acting all around. It’s a different beast than “X,” but even more memorable, and I can’t wait to see how this trilogy concludes.

Mia Goth as “Pearl”

“Pearl” is a 2022 horror movie directed by Ti West and starring Mia Goth, Matthew Sunderland, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, and Emma Jenkins-Purro. It is rated R for some strong violence, gore, strong sexual content and graphic nudity and runtime is ` hour, 43 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 16. Alex’s Grade: A+