[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 SXSW Film Festival; The Final Girls opens today in theaters an is also available on VOD.]
I don’t know if you can relate, but I always have a good deal of fun imagining how I’d fair in a horror movie. Odds are, I won’t have the opportunity to run away from a big screen slasher anytime soon, but at least now The Final Girls lets me live the dream a little.
The movie stars Taissa Farmiga as Max, the daughter of famous actress Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) who’s known for one single thing, playing the shy girl with the clipboard and the guitar in the cult classic, Camp Bloodbath. Three years after losing her mother in a car crash, Max is still having a tough time moving on with her life, but thanks to the Camp Bloodbath legacy, she doesn’t really have to yet. During a freak accident at a Camp Bloodbath screening, Max and her friends must literally step through the screen and into the movie, giving Max the opportunity to reunite with her mother – or at least the Camp Bloodbath version of her mother.
The way writers M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller get the main characters from the real world into Camp Bloodbath is clunky and a bit of a stretch, but the scenario is such a blast, it’s only natural to go with it. The Final Girls is a dream come true for anyone with a soft spot for slasher movies. Max and her friends Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Vicki (Nina Dobrev), Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) literally tear open the screen, walk through it and wind up in a horror movie. From there, it’s all about playing by some genre rules and subverting others in order to avoid getting hacked up by the film’s machete toting villain, Billy, and it’s tons of fun.
The characters are all familiar stereotypes – Max is the virgin, Chris is the boyfriend, Gertie is the best friend, Vicki’s the bitch and Duncan’s the movie geek – but Farmiga, Ludwig, Shawkat, Dobrev and Middleditch all manage to find the appropriate middle ground between adhering to the satirical quality of the film and giving their characters the humanity they need to ensure viewers are rooting for them to survive the movie. However, then we’ve got the Camp Bloodbath counselors who aren’t just horror movie cliches, but horror movie cliches to the absolute maximum. Adam Devine plays Kurt, the resident cocky jerk who wants to sleep with everyone and Angela Trimbur steps in as Tina, the slut who can draw out the killer by taking off her shirt. The whole point of their characters is to go to the extreme and DeVine and Trimmer certainly seize the opportunity. DeVine dishes out one outrageous one-liner after the next and Trimmer is responsible for one of the film’s most unforgettable moments, an absolutely hysterical slasher-summoning dance.
We’ve also got Akerman’s character who hits a nice balance between the two groups. On the one hand, she’s a Camp Bloodbath counselor and totally plays into her role within the film, but she also strikes up a rather genuine relationship with Max without knowing that she’s really her daughter in the real world. The Final Girls is a horror comedy through and through, but Akerman and Farmiga build such an honest, heartfelt relationship between Max and her mother’s Camp Bloodbath character that the movie actually manages to conjure a tear or two.
The Final Girls has rock solid performances across the board, but it is a highly stylized piece and there’s absolutely no way it would have worked as well had director Todd Strauss-Schulson not had such a firm handle on the visuals and tone of the film. Like the characters, his shooting style plays up familiar horror movie cliches. There’s shots of Billy wielding his machete while stepping out of the fog in the distance, a fun play on flashbacks, this especially clever 360-degree rotating shot and more standout visuals that let the movie go beyond just stating that the characters are stuck in Camp Bloodbath and rather, truly making it feel as though they’re trapped in it.
The Final Girls is an insanely entertaining horror spoof, but it’s also got enough authorial expressivity to make it feel like its own thing to a degree. Based on a mere synopsis you could certainly say that The Final Girls is doing what The Cabin in the Woods did a few years ago, but as far as the full feature goes, this is a fresh and highly effective approach to having fun with the genre cliches we love while finding even more ways to enjoy them.