MaXXXine: A Cultural Tribute to 1980s Los Angeles, Sex Work, and Camp Horror

Anna R.
July 7, 2024

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been completely enamored with 1980s Los Angeles. It felt like a time when anything could happen—that with enough will, delusion, luck, and maybe a blow job or two, you could find your way into a life of fame and excess. And after all, isn’t that what we all want? Just me? Well, whatever you may desire, there’s probably a reality in which it could have been yours in 1980s LA.

To understand MaXXXine and truly appreciate it, I think you have to have some understanding and deep admiration for '80s LA, camp horror, sex work, grit, and dare I say, new wave/punk history. I really enjoyed the ways in which this movie tied all those parts together and made a sex worker the complicated hero of the film—a rarity in media if you ask me.

So much of this movie hinges on cultural references and understandings, from the satanic panic to the merging of mainstream film and porn. It’s all referencing something, and, controversial opinion, I don’t think enough people have enough context to be reviewing this movie. They want it so badly to be this horror that they feel comfortable with. But MaXXXine isn’t that. It’s a movie about culture, a love letter to what once was, a cultivation of the grit of '80s LA and camp horror films of the time.

There will be some spoilers in this reflection, so if you haven’t seen it, read another one of my articles. Perhaps this review of Civil War, since clearly you have a thing for A24.

Mia Goth as Maxine from the movie 'Maxxxine' walks confidently in front of a casting call sign that reads 'Open Casting Today. Show Us Your X Factor!' She is wearing a light blue halter-top jumpsuit and sunglasses, exuding a bold and self-assured demeanor. Behind her, several women are seated, waiting for their turn, dressed in various 1970s-style outfits. The scene is set in an outdoor parking lot with classic cars parked nearby, capturing the retro atmosphere of the film.
Photo: A24

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t really care for horror films. Tin foil hat time, but I think they let demonic energy into your life. My very own satanic panic if you will. With that being said, I absolutely love a cheesy camp B-movie—Frankenhooker, Death Spa, Return of the Living Dead, and if we are being gracious, Elvira. But what I love more than cheesy horror flicks is porn.

Looking to this time period, what I think is perhaps most interesting is the connection between porn and horror. So much of '80s horror films relied on sex and, in a lot of ways, weren’t scared to make commentary on porn and sex work. Perhaps one of the best examples of that being Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.

The '80s are a really interesting time for the sex industry. Advances in technology were making rapid advancements that allowed for sex and erotica to become much more accessible. The rise of porn meant an influx of money for a lot of people, from producers to distributors, and even some of the talent behind the camera. It wasn’t unheard of for some pornos of the time to have extreme budgets.

A number of porn stars quickly became a part of mainstream culture, most notably Ginger Lynn, Traci Lords, and unfortunately Ron Jeremy. All of this arguably paved the way for Jesse Jane, Jenna Jameson, Anna Nicole, and Stormy Daniels. And I think to some extent, it has contributed to the rise of the pseudo sex work celebrities like Pamela Anderson.

But it wasn’t just porn printing money. Beverly Hills madame to the stars, Elizabeth Adams, “Madam Alex,” was quickly becoming known locally, if only infamously. At her peak, Adams allegedly had 150 girls working for her and was bringing home $100,000 a month. Adjusted for inflation, that's over $300,000 a month. Her 1988 arrest sent panic across Hollywood, but perhaps more interestingly, it gave rise to Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood's most notorious modern madame whose roster included swarms of Playboy bunnies and allegedly Denise Richards.

Mia Goth as Maxine from the movie 'Maxxxine' stands in a dimly lit club, wearing a green satin jacket with her name embroidered on it. Beside her is Halsey, playing Tabby Martin, who has short dark hair, bold makeup, and a white fur coat. Behind them, the club's lively atmosphere is highlighted by neon signs and people with punk hairstyles and outfits. The scene captures the edgy and vibrant setting of the film.
Photo: A24

1980s LA was a time where it was entirely possible to get filthy rich and famous from sex work. MaXXXine manages to capture all of the crossover between sex work, mainstream entertainment, and horror films of the time. Because horror is often seen as a less serious type of acting and film, it’s entirely possible that Maxine was intentionally strategic about choosing to act in horror, as the film closely mirrors a number of real-life porn stars with similar career trajectories.

There is also a bit of conversation in the film between Elizabeth Bender, the director of the film Maxine is set to star in, about the studio's fear of casting a porn actress as a lead. Bender quickly writes this off, citing that this is a sequel horror film about Satan, much of which has already drawn massive outrage. The casting of a porn actress just adds to the sensation of things. After all, all press is good press.

There are moments where MaXXXine manages to beautifully capture all of the modern (and I imagine past) complexities of being a sex worker—from extreme moments like having to curb stomp some creep’s balls to having beloved friends pass away under tragic and often violent circumstances. There’s a lot of different hierarchies and privileges within sex work, but perhaps our only constant is our exposure to violence.

While I love to talk about sex work, let's move to the other more critiqued part of the movie: the actual horror aspect of it. I’ve seen a number of reviews saying that the film was the weakest of the trilogy and perhaps underwhelming.

I’m not entirely sure what people were expecting, but MaXXXine was exactly what I thought it’d be: a cheesy horror film, filled with messages about positive moral values, and questionable story plots—a true homage to '80s slasher films. 

Maxine from the movie 'Maxxxine' stands in the middle of a crowded and vibrant dance scene. She has wild, curly blonde hair and wears striking red face paint over her eyes. The background is filled with other dancers in various poses, with colorful and dramatic outfits, contributing to the energetic and lively atmosphere.
Photo: A24

I don’t know how else better to say it, but this film was camp. And if you don’t understand that, then I can’t help you. MaXXXine is silly, it’s camp, it’s meant to be outrageous, full of plot holes, tropes, and explanations of completely obvious things, just like the B horror movies of the time.

There were a number of references to different '80s horror films either in the form of actually showing them, like in the VHS store, or referencing their tropes. I do think Psycho and Halloween were the most noticeable and obvious references in the film. MaXXXine had a lot of the makings of B horror movies during that time in the form of heavy references to cultural and moral critiques. A lot of this film relied on the viewer's context of satanic panic and the ways in which Christian puritanism played into so much of the culture.

During the '80s there was so much emphasis on entertainment being the root cause of evil, that Hollywood was a sinister bed of sin, hellbent on corrupting the minds and souls of children. While I’d like to think our satanic panic isn’t as prevalent, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Instead of worrying about parental advisory labels on hair metal albums, society is more focused on the cults of Hollywood. And much of our panic has spilled over into other forms of entertainment, culture, and politics; just look at the many Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracies. No matter how far we think we might come, Christian evangelism still has a grip on much of our country.

My only critique: more new wave and punk music, please! It’s so clear that Maxine was connected to this scene at this time. Why not give us a little more Missing Persons, or perhaps even some Angelyne? Although, I was greatly relieved to see an Angelyne billboard in one scene. I love to see a sex worker icon celebrated in all her glory. This movie is for the true lovers of sleaze culture, porn, new wave, camp, and of course, for the whores. May our scarlet letter never deter us from what is rightfully ours. May we never accept the life we do not deserve.

Angelyne, the Billboard Queen, wearing a bright pink outfit, poses with various individuals in front of her signature pink Corvette on a city street. In the top left photo, she is with Halsey. In the top right photo, she is with Ti West. In the bottom left photo, she is with Giancarlo Esposito, an American actor. In the bottom right photo, she is with Mia Goth. In each photo, Angelyne is striking different poses, showcasing her iconic style and personality.
There can only be one Anglyne, the original influencer.