Thursday, October 15, 2015

Slash From The Past

For our podcast episode about this film, click here!

Year: 2015
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I’ve been waiting for so long to tell people about The Final Girls. Sergio and I got the chance to watch it at a preview screening way back when in freaking January, and I feel like the NDA we signed has been branded on my heart, searing me with every beat. But now The Final Girls is here for all the world to see! I mean, in limited theaters, because distributors are too busy patting themselves on the back about Star Wars to bother putting effort into an indie horror-comedy. But VOD is a thing, so you can still watch it.

Oh, happy day!

If you haven’t seen The Final Girls yet and you are in any way a fan of slashers, horror, comedy, or movies in general, please ignore me and go watch it right now. Go in unmarred by any spoilers or expectations, thank me later. If you still need convincing, I’ll drum up a little review for you:

In The Final Girls, Max (Taissa Farmiga) is a high schooler living in the Valley. Her mother, Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) is a struggling actress whose biggest credit is appearing in the 1986 cult classic slasher Camp Bloodbath. Unfortunately she doesn’t get do live out her dream and dies in a tragic accident. 

Cut to three years later. On the anniversary of her mom’s death, Amanda is coerced by her friend Gertie’s (Alia Shawcat) brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) to make an appearance at the movie theater where he works, which is hosting a Camp Bloodbath double feature. When a fire breaks out, the three of them plus Max’s crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and his crazy ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) attempt to escape through the screen, which transports them into the world of the movie.

Now, this “classic” slasher might be fictional, but it’s still 1986, so let’s revive that Census Bloodbath standby and Meet the Meat of Camp Bloodbath. There’s Kurt (Adam DeVine), the horny jock in a crop-top; Blake (Tory N. Thompson), the New Waver with plenty of flair on his suspenders; Tina (Angela Timbur), the ravenous slut; Paula (Chloe Bridges), Camp Bloodbath’s über cool Final Girl; and Nancy (Amanda Cartwright), the shy girl who gives Kurt her flower and gets murdered. To escape the film, the teens need to make it through to the end, surviving the onslaught of masked killer Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris) and making sure he gets slaughtered by the Final Girl.

Their appearance alters the natural course of the movie, leading to Paula’s death. A new Final Girl must be appointed, and Max sees this as an opportunity to save Nancy, the character her mother played, from yet another grisly demise.

You know, the usual lighthearted horror comedy stuff.

The Final Girls does many things, nearly all of them very well, but the one that’s foremost on my mind is that it has solved the problem of the post-Scream slasher. After the subgenre’s death in 1989, it faced a resurgence thanks to Wes Craven’s pop horror masterpiece, but the wave of slashers that followed inadequately forced themselves into that postmodern, self-referential framework. Then the genre was drowned beneath a tsunami of dour remakes, making hardly a peep since them.

TV shows like MTV’s Scream reboot and Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens are attempting that same winking style in a long form medium with varied success. People have tried, but the knowing slasher has prevented the genre from being traditional or particularly good. But The Final Girls slips right into that framework while keeping it totally fresh by marrying the leering satire to a genuine love for the genre, an organic incorporation of classic tropes, and a heartfelt, incredibly impactful storyline.

The Final Girls is a dazzling effort, cobbling a wholly original film from age-old tropes and situations. But context and structure be damned, it’s just plain good. It’s far more of a comedy that it is a horror film, but it’s a pretty funny one. With an exquisite cast at the wheel, the laughs flow freely, the best zingers coming from Middleditch (as the Randy-esque horror nerd, AKA me) and DeVine (whose over-the-top portrayal of the worst kind of stock character reminds one of the time that Jim Carrey used to be truly great). The fish-out-of-water antics come at the viewer from two angles (the characters don’t realize that they’re fictional and they’re trapped in the 80’s, history’s largest exporter of disposable pop culture), lancing their funny bones at every opportunity and incorporating familiar film conventions in unexpected ways.

The direct parody of the slasher genre is also effective, avoiding the pop culture-laden clunkiness of other entries in the genre. It does reference specific films (including, astoundingly, Pieces – these people know their stuff), but in a subtle manner that doesn’t obviously call itself out. Slasher veterans will intuitively recognize these clever nods, but it won’t distract from the overall narrative. This quality is decidedly important because, though it is undoubtedly funny the truth strength of The Final Girls lies in a surprising dimension.

Dun dun dun…

The beating heart of The Final Girls is the mother-daughter storyline that drives it. It’s an unflinching, heartbreaking look at loss and grief that hides tender emotion beneath the glittering comic sheen. While all slasher necessarily depict death, this is one of the only ones in history that’s actually about death. [SPOILERS/AWESOME MIND-BLOWING ANALYSIS In a way, The Final Girls is a slasher analogue to last year’s Big Hero 6 – a young protagonist (Max, Hiro) loses a beloved/hot family member (Amanda, Tadashi), then encounters a surrogate for them (Nancy, Baymax). Through the loss of this surrogate, they learn to cope with their grief and accept the tragedy (Nancy sacrifices herself to save Max and end the movie, Baymax is launched into an evil space portal, saving Hiro). Where Big Hero 6 has a cop-out happy ending, The Final Girls is a heart-wrenching parable that has me crying real man tears.]

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horror-comedy as sensitive and meaningful as The Final Girls, nor one that juggles those three disparate tones so well. Nor one that makes me want to listen to “Bette Davis Eyes” on repeat quite so much.

That said, as much as I passionately adore this film, there are some minor issues that need airing out before we move on. First, the movie hobbles itself by taking on a PG-13 rating, which prevents it from really digging into the sex and violence inherent to the slasher genre. The story it tells is absolutely good enough that this absence doesn’t derail it, but they missed a big opportunity to really dive into bloody goodness. There’s also two extremely shoddy pieces of FX work, both of which mar the all-important opening scene, which sets the tone for the entire piece. One is just some cheap but blissfully brief CGI, but the other is the ludicrously unconvincing wrinkle makeup requited to get Malin Akerman to look her own age.

That woman is an immortal goddess.

Those aren’t damning flaws by far, though they’re enough to knock my rating down a point or so. But you can’t knock down my heart. Or my eyes. Because, damn does The Final Girls have some visual splendor. The film is shot like a fairy tale, with a bold color palette, a lush forest tapestry showered with glowing daffodils and cheerful fecundity, and slick camera work that elegantly frames even the simplest of shots. And those shots that aren’t so simple? Some of them are frankly breathtaking works of art.

Just look at this! I think about this shot every night before I go to sleep in the hopes that my dreams are this gorgeous.

I love The Final Girls. I don’t know what more I need to say. A film this sweet, silly, and impeccably spectacular deserves to be seen and I hope I got through to you. Make this your Halloween treat and you won’t be disappointed.

TL;DR: The Final Girls is an utterly impressive horror-comedy, mixing sentimental heart with strong laughs.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1372


  1. Hey, I finally saw this, and I liked it! Agreed on pretty much all your points, especially this one:

    "First, the movie hobbles itself by taking on a PG-13 rating, which prevents it from really digging into the sex and violence inherent to the slasher genre."

    Man, it's even *worse* if you assumed going in it was R, and didn't realize until halfway through that it's PG-13.

    As for the cinematography and the CGI skies, they're awful pretty, and I think that's better than the alternative, even if the alternative would've been more rigorous--that is, trying to recreate grindhouse-style photography and filmstock, sort of like the first half Death Proof. That would've maybe been more formally interesting, but there's a reason no one says, "Boy, Friday the 13th sure is a *well-shot* movie."

    I also thought it sold itself short in the climax, which tracks with no final girl sequence I can name and assumes an in-universe magical prowess and woman-on-a-mission proactivity to the final girl that is present in approximately zero slasher films, except for scattered moments in the Screams. (Whereas The Final Girls seems to take its cue from the freaking Matrix, of all things.)

    I did like the Halloween II epilogue, though, and I liked it a lot, even if they were cheating like mad with the cast and their own rules--after all, rule-based rigor wasn't exactly Final Girls' bag in the first place.

    1. You're definitely right. The Final Girls is as far from a vigorous exploration of the genre as it could possibly be. I like it for what it does as a film, but as a genre parody, it might be one of the least studied I've ever seen.