PG-13 | 88 min | Todd Strauss-Schulson | (USA) | 2015
The Final Girls is a curious horror film. On the surface it is an homage to all the ridiculous tropes that made 1980s slasher films so irresistible. But lurking beneath this campy homage is a heartfelt sentimentality that works because it is so unexpected. The end result is a horror film that manages to break new ground tonally while still providing the gasp-worthy moments sought after by fans.
Fueled by memorable performances, most notably by the criminally underrated Malin Akerman, The Final Girls features way better acting than we would expect to see in a slasher film. The story revolves around Max, a girl whose recently deceased actress mother is a cult star of a slasher film. When a series of events pull Max and her friends into the fictional world of the cult film, the teens must figure out how to avoid the knife-wielding killer.
The film essentially operates on two levels. There is the film-within-a-film, aptly named Camp Bloodbath, wherein the characters are easily slotted into those tropes representative of 80s horror. For instance, there is the sex-obsessed, bon mot dropping Kurt (the hysterical Ada DeVine), whose survival seems entirely predicated upon luck, and the virginal, guitar-playing Nancy (Malin Akerman), the character that Max’s mother played in the film. The relationships between these characters are as superficial as we’d expect from a film more concerned with bloody battles than relationship building.
Then there’s a second group, those teens thrust into the film-within-a-film, who allow the story to play with all the conventions embodied by the Camp Bloodbath characters. These unlucky teens are more a riff on the tropes which emerged in 90s self-referential horror. There is Max (Taissa Farmiga), the motherless and romantically awkward teen, who is a dead ringer for Scream’s Sydney Prescott. Horror aficionado Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), who spends the film pointing out slasher film conventions, is a dead ringer for Scream’s Randy.
Having these two similar and yet distinctive sets of tropes meet and interact is a brilliant way to highlight the sillier qualities of the genre while still keeping the film credible. It also creates a host of interesting questions not normally posed in slasher horror. Consider the role premarital sex plays in the slasher film. In the 80s, having sex on screen meant a brutal death was inevitably forthcoming. Scream broke that edict in the 90s by allowing the Final Girl to have sex provided she be in a committed relationship. Max is a return to that virginal construct of the 80s, and its inclusion in a film that challenges other slasher tropes yields some uncomfortable questions about how far women in horror have truly come.
It is through the film’s strong performances that scenes which could easily devolve into parody become legitimately moving moments between characters. We become invested in these relationships, which, in turn, makes the inevitable bloodshed a much more emotional experience. Unlike Halloween (1978), Prom Night (1980), and, indeed, every slasher film in existence, The Final Girls is not about simply racking up creative kills for audience enjoyment. Instead, it takes that enjoyment and uses it against us to create a truly unique undercurrent of grief over the loss of life.
If there is one flaw, it may be in the film’s rendering of Camp Bloodbath’s Final Girl. When we first meet Paula (Chloe Bridges), the characters quickly agree to follow her as she is the one who is supposed to make it to the end. There was absolutely nothing about this character, however, that reflected the Final Girl criteria set forth by Carol Clover. She is neither overtly virginal (Paula’s clothes are designed to ooze sex), nor does she avoid such vices as drinking and smoking (Paula’s badassery is clearly marked by her smoking), and she also lacks a gender neutral name. Since I’m admittedly obsessed with the Final Girl construct, the film’s having a character who lacked all of the qualities set forth in Clover’s criteria took me out of the movie. In a film that was otherwise so smart about horror, it was just wrong.
My guess is that a lot of reviews will label the film a clone of Last Action Hero (1993). But while the device of transporting characters into a film-within-a-film is certainly the same in both films, that’s where the comparison ends. The Final Girls isn’t so much a parody of a genre as it is a reinvention of the characteristics that have made slasher horror such an identifiable genre.
The Blu-ray comes out tomorrow. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.