'MaXXXine' brings the bloody fun of 'X,' 'Pearl' into sleazy world of '80s erotic thrillers

Mia Goth gives another mesmerizing performance in this wildly entertaining horror film loaded with pop-culture treats.

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Mia Goth sports a painted-on eye mask and is surrounded by colorful characters in this still shot from "MaXXXine."

Mia Goth plays the title character in “MaXXXine,” six years after she endured the porn-movie massacre depicted in “X.”

A24

The danger in watching Ti West’s lurid and blood-spattered and wildly entertaining 1980s period piece “MaXXXine” is that you can get so caught up in cataloging all the pop culture references that you’ll have to remind yourself to stay focused on the story of our title character, who is in the midst of experiencing her second unspeakably horrific trauma in six years.

So yes, “MaXXXine” is sometimes more style than substance. Still, amid all the clever inside jokes and Easter eggs, writer-director-producer-editor West delivers a masterfully paced horror film set against the dichotomy between actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” and the reality of 1985 Hollywood and its grimy, exploitive, misogynist underbelly. With “X” and the 1918-set prequel “Pearl” and now “MaXXXine,” West has created a gruesomely memorable trilogy of elevated horror films.

Each of the three movies has been filmed in genre style. “X” is a drive-in B-movie as filtered through the lens of a 1970s porn film, while “Pearl” is a Technicolor musical turned into a slasher film. “MaXXXine” looks like a 1980s MTV video crossed with the kind of R-rated, soft-porn, erotic thrillers that would play on Cinemax (aka “Skinemax”) and were available on VHS in a section of the video store that was tucked in the back, just outside the beaded partition that led to the X-rated fare.

'MaXXXine'

A24 presents a film written and directed by Ti West. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, gore, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and drug use). After “early access” screenings Wednesday night, opens Friday at local theaters.

Goth has given four mesmerizing performances in the trilogy: as both adult film actress Maxine and the terrifying and homicidal old lady Pearl in “X,” as the frighteningly ambitious and unhinged Pearl in the prequel, and now once again as Maxine Minx (spoiler alert, that’s not her birth name). “MaXXXine” picks up six years after the Texas Porn Film Massacre, with the now-blonde Maxine living in Hollywood and obsessed with becoming famous. Clad in denim and wearing emotional armor made of self-confidence combined with cynicism and snark, Maxine is hell-bent on making the transition from adult film actress to mainstream star — and she makes that first step by nailing an audition for the lead in “The Puritan 2,” a Satanic possession horror thriller directed by the ice-cool and equally ambitious Liz Bender (Elizabeth Debicki).

This is it! Maxine’s big break. She has wanted to be famous ever since she was a little girl trying to please her fundamentalist Christian preacher father, and now it’s finally happening. Liz keeps telling Maxine that she has to be laser-focused on the role and shut out whatever else is happening in her life — but that’s tough to do, what with so much mayhem circling Maxine’s world.

The real-life menace known as “The Night Stalker” is prowling the streets, there’s an apparent copycat killer employing similarly sadistic and Satanic methods, and Maxine is being hounded by the oily P.I. John Labat (Kevin Bacon). At one point, Maxine is confronted by a knife-wielding psychopath dressed as Buster Keaton, and for the outcome of that encounter you almost have to look away, or at least cease munching on your popcorn.

With holy roller activists protesting movies such as “Puritan” and the Senate holding hearings on explicit music (we catch a glimpse of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider testifying, which actually happened a few months after the time period of the film), the body count in Hollywood keeps piling up, with Maxine connected to a number of victims. Still, fueled by cocaine and bravado, Maxine refuses to cooperate with LAPD homicide Detectives Williams (Michelle Monaghan) and Torres (Bobby Canavale), opting instead to rely on her cheerfully shady agent/mentor Teddy (Giancarlo Esposito) to help her stay alive so she can make that call time for “Puritan 2.” (The impressive roster of new additions to the cast also includes Lily Collins in a show-stopping cameo as the star of the original “Puritan” and Chicago-born Sophia Thatcher from “Yellowjackets” as a makeup and special effects artist.)

Whether it’s “St. Elmo’s Fire” on a movie marquee (and the title theme playing on the radio), scenes with echoes of films ranging from 1960’s “Peeping Tom” to 1979’s “Hardcore” to 1984’s “Body Double,” or a glimpse of early “Vamp” queen Theda Bara’s star on the Walk of Fame (a callback to “Pearl”), this movie immerses itself in those pop culture references. (The peak moment is when Bacon’s Labat, sporting a suit and a nose bandage that mirrors Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes from “Chinatown,” chases Maxine through the Universal backlot and she takes refuge inside the “Psycho” house.) The central murder mystery isn’t really much of a mystery, but it still makes for a chilling and brutally graphic penultimate sequence.

When we leave Maxine, she’s 33 and on the brink of mainstream stardom. It would be fascinating to pick up her story a decade or two down the road. We get the feeling that no matter where Maxine goes, a river of blood is sure to find her.

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