by Philip Price
“The Final Girls” is one of those movies people who love movies could likely watch over and over again. I say this because I've watched it twice already and enjoyed it even more the second time around. Everything about the film is calculated to perfection when considering the genre it is both lampooning and writing a love letter to. Here, writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller use this self-aware technique not to make fun of the actions of their own movie, but more to examine the staples of nostalgia and how what eventually become these staples begin as innocent, unintentional marks of the decade from which a movie is born. We're unaware of the tropes being created by the countless super hero blockbusters of our current cinematic landscape, but in 20 years there is no doubt the twenty-somethings will find a strange comfort in movies that attempt to recreate the tone and energy of what we can't see in front of us right now. It's an interesting experiment and one that pays off in spades for a certain type of audience member. Lucky for me, I feel a part of the generation that will get the most out of this take on the slasher film that was born out of the ‘80s horror boom. There are two kinds of spoofs, ones where the characters and genre trappings are exaggerated for mere comical effect and then the ones that mean to point out the aspects that, while admittedly being horrible, also make the characters and genre so endearing. What “The Final Girls” clearly intends to do is show us why these ‘80s films about teens dying horribly gruesome deaths have become so endearing to the current generation. The answer is we find a kind of solace in the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Leatherface and Michael Myers that wasn't available in the elaborate mind of Jigsaw or the allusive ‘Paranormal Activity’ villains. It's an atmosphere that feels foreign to the smart phone era and is a reminder of what the world was like when we were innocent while still appealing to our now adult nature with its horror aspects. “The Final Girls” capitalizes on each of these components to play perfectly into everything a certain set of audience members need to feel fully enraptured not only in the events taking place in the film, but our own thought processes about such films.
These intentions all become apparent when we're introduced to our core group of present-time protagonists. Being in their early twenties creates their necessary admiration for the time period and the allure of what makes these kinds of movies so celebrated. There is leader by default Max (Taissa Farmiga) whose mom, Amanda (Malin Akerman), played one of the countless victims to an ‘80s horror icon in the vein of Jason and died 20 years later when Max was in her most formidable years. Her best friend is Gertie (Alia Shawkat) who personifies the indie/hipster vibe to a T while also having a nerdy step-brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) who counts himself among the biggest fans of that ‘80s slasher film Max's mom starred in. Duncan is heading up a screening of "Camp Bloodbath" at a local theater for himself and other fans of the film and is keen on getting Max to come and make an appearance. Max is hesitant, especially since the screening will take place on the anniversary of her mom's death, but is persuaded when Duncan promises to do the remainder of her classic literature homework for the semester. This puts traditional jock Chris (Alexander Ludwig) in something of an awkward position as he'd asked to tutor Max with her homework so as to seemingly get to know her better as his feelings for her are more than obvious from the get-go. Still, he's a handsome, well-liked and rather confident guy so he shows up at the screening for what he likes to call "emotional support." His presence also brings Vicki (Nina Dobrev) into the fold as she and Chris recently broke up and she's nowhere near over it. It's also clear that Vicki and Max have some type of history with one another, but this isn't crucial to the story the film is telling. What is crucial is the fact that during the screening of "Camp Bloodbath", by some magical combination of fire and alcohol, the group are transported into the world of 1986 where the film plays on a loop and this new set of characters must figure out how to make it through to the end of the film without becoming victims themselves.
The crux of the film is that of the relationship between Max and her mother. While the surrounding layers of the slasher film and the horror movie staples infiltrate the proceedings as far as what is expected to happen with the plot and how this reconfigured version will work given the present influence, the story still centers itself around Max and her coming to terms with the death of her mom. While we only see Max with her actual mother on screen for a few minutes at the beginning, the important roles they play in each other’s lives are clearly defined and played effectively by both Farmiga and Akerman. It isn't until Max and the rest of the gang end up in "Camp Bloodbath" that Max comes to the realization she'll come face to face with this character who looks and sounds just like her mother, but who will have no idea who she is or what she's lost. That Akerman has to play this symbol of sorts to Farmiga's Max without being able to let on any further emotional attachment while also tackling the mindset outside of that character as a struggling actress two decades later is something of a dual role where the immediate challenges won't be obvious to casual moviegoers. Akerman handles this responsibility with a seeming ease as her movie persona, Nancy, is the typical guitar-strumming quiet type that will lose her virginity for the first time in this first summer of freedom and then be mercilessly killed for doing so.
The implications are ripe for exploring not only the archetypes consistently present in these kinds of films, but in Max again taking on the role she was forced to fill with her actual mother. There is this mentality in Max where she feels the need to protect and shelter her mother from the real world and she again takes on that role under the circumstances of running away from a masked madman with a machete. The film even goes so far as to allow Amanda's personality to creep through into what makes up Nancy given bits of Amanda were bound to appear in the character she's playing, but this allows for a level of emotional heartache in Max who is finding it more and more difficult to discern between the allusion and the reality of the situation. This dilemma is what propels the film forward. There is plenty of other stuff going on around this core conflict, but that the writers/director were able to gain such genuine emotional ground in what is otherwise a broad comedy says something for the skill level at which they're operating. Furthermore, the culmination of the film is one that is able to bring these strands together in a way that ultimately justifies this relationship between mother and daughter that's been building to an inevitable conclusion as well as validating the use of the ‘80s horror film structure. It is an unenviable task considering how great the set-up for this film is, but that “The Final Girls” was able to one-up my expectations for its finale only makes it all the more gratifying.
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson piles on the synth-heavy soundtrack and the clear John Carpenter and Wes Craven influences in both his visual approach and pacing while Fortin and Miller take care of the tone in the characters and dialogue they've created specifically for "Camp Bloodbath." Whether it be Kurt (Adam Devine) who is the ignorant jock only working at the camp to deflower as many fellow counselors as he can or Tina (Angela Trimbur) the overly-horny female counselor who finds pleasure not only in sex, but getting stoned these affable but idiotic players make up the core of the original cast and provide much of the comic relief on both levels. Middle grounders such as Blake (Tory N. Thompson) are relegated to the expendables crowd while the likes of Paula (Chloe Bridges), who is the original "final girl" of the film, is only given a certain amount of screen time before Max and her cohorts have to figure out a new resolution than following the safe bet around. This is all to say that The Final Girls knows how to play with its tropes and it plays with them well. From the haunting chants that serve as a precursor to the appearance of big bad Billy Murphy, to the obligatory flashbacks that tell of his origin story, and even on to the somewhat tried, but still funny (and gorgeously rendered) slow motion shots that only stand to make the otherwise quick deaths of people we've grown accustomed to more affecting. Everything about the film clicks.
On top of this mountain of detail that has already been poured into the writing, the aesthetic, and the look that Strauss-Schulson and cinematographer Elie Smolkin have crafted to both mirror their inspirations while using camera movements that place us more inside the celluloid the film is, more than anything, consistently funny without being obvious or overly-lewd. Sure, the basis of "Camp Bloodbath" is that anyone who has sex will die, but the film uses this as a point of satire rather than an excuse to indulge in such acts itself. This is appreciated as “The Final Girls” makes a point to show what happens to these young actors who give these kinds of movies their all and in return can't find work afterwards because of the cheapness of such experience. That “The Final Girls” doesn't become what it is parodying, but instead takes a formula and comments on it while improving upon it is a rare feat and one that should be appreciated by being watched again and again if not for how hilariously entertaining it is, but for all the perfectly placed details you no doubt missed the first time around.