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There’s a pretty clear path many movie genres tend to travel. It starts with a film, typically one well-received by audiences and critics. This standardizes the genre tropes, including character archetypes, plot points, various settings and musical themes. After a period where the format is established, it moves on to homage, where new films reinterpret, re-envision, reproduce and reimagine the core moments that have come to define the genre. Then comes the do-overs where new generations of filmmakers create their own versions of the classics, probably many of them not even realizing where the inspiration derives from. Next is the parody and then finally, there is the meta film, the conscious self-referential commentary on its own subject.
Horror films seem to be best-suited for the meta-phase and there have been a few meta-horror films that do it well, mixing a respectable nod to the origins, an approachable and identifiable line of in-joke humor, and even a branch or two in another direction that gives it a fresh spin. The Scream series, or at least the first in franchise, did this well and others have followed, including the almost great Cabin in the Woods (2012). There is also Wes Craven’s under-rated New Nightmare (1994) that remains arguably the gold standard.
Now we have The Final Girls, which takes its title from one of those tropes mentioned above where a girl, typically a virgin, is the last character left alive to defeat or otherwise subdue the film’s antagonist. So the film has two things working and for it, and for the most part, handles them both very well.
The premise is an old one, where characters watching a film magically enter the pretend world of the movie and are ingratiated into the story. What’s clever about The Final Girls is that the ones traveling into the film know all about the story in the fake world. But it goes one better. The fake film stars a young woman named Amanda (Malin Akerman). The twist here is that she is also the mother of Max (Taissa Farmiga), a girl whose is still dealing her mother’s death three years earlier and who is now in the fake film. This is well written and surprisingly touching.
That fake film is called Camp Bloodbath and is purposefully meant to mock the teen camp psycho-killer films that defined the genre in the 1970s and 80s. In it, traveling in a bright yellow VW camper van, three camp counselors are looking forward to a few days of hot fun and even hotter sex before the kids arrive but instead contend with a looming, masked, machete-wielding maniac who picks them off one-by-one throughout the story, which includes a black & white flashback to the killer’s origin.
These characters within the Camp Bloodbath movie are all stock, as they should be. Adam DeVine is Kurt, the horny jock type who is, with every word, trying to have sex with any girl who will listen. Angela Trimbur is Tina, the oversexed slut, who has trouble keeping her top on, and Tory N. Thompson is Blake, who wears suspenders and agrees to everything. Each play into the archetypes very well and give the overall movie a lot of good laughs, most especially Trimbur who is riotously funny in every scene she is in. When it’s learned that taking off your top means you will die, the solution to stop Tina from doing just that is probably the single funniest bit, as is her response. The girl is a kinetic comedy machine who utterly owns the role.
The main characters are also painted in broad strokes, with Nina Dobrev playing Vicki, the bitchy mean girl, Alexander Ludwig as the hunky sensitive guy, Alia Shawkat is Gertie, the sassy girl and Thomas Middleditch is Duncan, the movie nerd who is the answer man for everyone when no one can figure out what is happening. These “present day” characters are sucked into Camp Bloodbath and learn quickly that there are some rather rigorous rules at play. They are part of the story, can interact with the movie characters, are in just as much danger and no matter what, can not leave. What’s worse, their real identities are discovered, which leads to panic and takes the “actors” off script and alters the plot of the fake film.
The best parts stem from the relationship between Max and her mother Amanda. While in the Camp Bloodbath movie though, Amanda is actually Nancy, a character, and therefore not exactly like the mother Max remembers, and since they are nearly the same age in this timeline, and Nancy is a bit misguided, Max takes a motherly role. There are some lovely moments between the two that work well because we know, like Max, the real story. One can’t help but wonder “what if’s” at the prospect. Farmiga (younger sister to Vera Farmiga) is a marvel here and really grounds the story, despite its quirky premise. There is a wonderful vulnerability to her even while she remains the strong one.
Also great are the flashback moments with Camp Bloodbath where the cast travels even further back to the 1950s to witness how Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris) ends up becoming the killer. Because they are bound by the rules of the movie, the world turns black & white and even the screen title informing the audience of the year is an actual object in the environment they much navigate around. It’s little touches like this that truly sell the premise.
This brings us to the film’s genre itself, which is not entirely clear despite the universe it creates. There is genuinely not one scary moment in the story, and nor does it seem to be trying to have one. It seems content with playing out the premise to its widest possible margins rather than attempting to create a horror experience. The comedy works far better, as does the sentimental moments though some more bits about the difference between the the eighties and present day could have worked beyond one or two cell phone jokes. Also, the dynamic of the time-loop quandary is only superficially explored or contrived for a laugh, though given the nature of the film, not much should be expected, but as there are some emotional moments associated with it, it’s a little disappointing.
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, The Final Girls is a really good looking movie. Brilliant water color style sets make the imagined Camp Blue Finch, where the action takes place, a beautiful fantasy world. I like the style and direction, and there are some surprisingly sharp moments and a spectacular attack and chase scene that elevate this to something special. The filmmakers clearly admire the roots of slasher horror and it never feels like the film is poking fun more than paying respect. Horror fan or not, this is a must see.
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Writers: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller
Stars: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine
Genre: Horror, Comedy