‘MaXXXine’ Director Ti West Is Turning Hollywood Into a Horror Show

West made several, often for very little money, and usually — in part because he is an only child and has trouble giving up control, but also because it’s cost-effective — he wrote and edited the movies too. One, about a trio of hunters who fear that they are being hunted, he made for about $10,000 in the Delaware woods. Another, about two friends investigating hauntings in a creepy old inn, was inspired in part by the creepy old inn he and the crew stayed in while making a different film entirely. The result, “The Innkeepers” (2011), was the first West film to catch Scorsese’s eye; after seeing it, he told me, “I thought: OK, I want to see everything this guy does.” The film reminded him of the work of Val Lewton, who was put in charge of RKO’s “horror unit” in the early 1940s and given a simple mandate: The films had to be under $150,000 and 70 minutes, and the studio heads would pick the titles; otherwise he could do what he wanted. The films he oversaw, starting with “Cat People” in 1942, were atmospheric and psychological, the tonal opposite of the screamy monster movies put out by Universal at the time. The amazing thing about “The Innkeepers,” Scorsese said, was that “you could eliminate the ghost story and the film would work without it, which echoes the way Val Lewton made his films: He always made sure that the core story had to stand on its own, apart from the supernatural elements.”

To Fessenden, it is an understanding of pacing — like West’s determination “to both frustrate the audience and then reward them” — that really ties together talent. “It’s also something you can only do if you’re defiantly independent,” he said. “Because, of course, in our blockbuster, Hollywood fare, everything is basically sort of commodified, and there are no challenging cinematic ideas because it’s all about the three-second cut.” I told him I was interested in what Reichardt made of West’s work, but he said she didn’t really watch new genre movies. He did, however, offer up a common thread between the two filmmakers, particularly in West’s early work. “I would argue — and this is maybe the whole point — they’re both interested in the texture and the timing, the slowing-down of time,” he said. “Now, Ti’s recent film is more bombastic, of course. But, at its core, the reason he’s known as a slow-burn guy is there’s a tremendous attention to everyday details. Ti’s build dread. Kelly’s, she builds maybe more like empathy. But there’s a similar thing going on.”

The knock on West’s recent movies is that they are movies about movies. When a film’s core interest is in the craftier aspects of the craft, it is easy to let other essential elements — character, story, performance — take a back seat. And sure, the “X” trilogy does act as a kind of skeleton key for entire rooms of underseen cinema, inspiring copious list-making on sites like Letterboxd. But their appeal is broader than that; these are not just movies for film dorks. And their wider success can, I think, be boiled down to two features: They are personal — more personal than West will ever let on — and they star Mia Goth.

We’ll get to Goth in a moment, but the thing to know about how “X” came about is that before he sat down to write it, West had been working in television for five years, directing episodes on 11 different shows, and he was comfortable. TV was comfortable, compared with the grind of hustling up money to make films. It was: “Can you be on a plane on Monday?” So he did it for a long time. And when, eventually, he again felt the pull to make a movie, he thought about what he loved, what he revered, what was worth the trouble of making a movie. And what he came up with was: movies.

So he wrote a screenplay. It was a story not entirely different from his own — an old story, about as old as Hollywood. A girl with big dreams wants to make it in the movies. She, too, is from somewhere far away; not Delaware, but Texas. And she, too, is ambitious — willing to do whatever it takes to get what she’s after. The movie she and her friends set out to make is also a low-budget genre flick; not horror, but porn. West’s story begins with them hitting the road and renting a house from an elderly couple on a farm, but the couple turn out to be freaky and murderous — particularly the wife, Pearl. When it’s all over, the only one who has survived is the girl with the big dreams and wild ambitions; it is her ambition, or perhaps her willingness to do whatever it takes to get what she says she deserves, that saves her. The film ends with Maxine Minx driving off, hellbound for Hollywood.

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