The Final Girls could only be made by true fans of the slasher pictures of yore, or it probably wouldn’t be as much fun as it is. Even before film scholar Carol J. Clover coined the term in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, the “final girl” has always been a long-standing trope in slasher movies and, following 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods and 2013’s You’re Next, it finally gets the major meta subversion it deserves. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson (2011’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) and written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, the film is beyond ingenious in concept, blending Last Action Hero with Friday the 13th and a little Wet Hot American Summer, and sets up a group of likable characters we actually want to see reach the end. A gloriously entertaining, giddily imaginative treat that is about as self-aware as Wes Craven’s Scream series but still very clever in its own right, The Final Girls hits the sweet spot and gives the slasher genre a surprisingly inspired post-modern kick that it can always use.
Three years ago, California Valley teen Max (Taissa Farmiga) was involved in a car accident that took the life of her mother, horror actress Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), who would never let down being a star in 1980s killer-with-a-machete slasher flick “Camp Bloodbath.” It being the anniversary of her mother’s death, a reluctant Max gets dragged to a local movie theater to see a double feature, beginning with “Camp Bloodbath,” but it is a chance to see her late mother again. Max’s best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and study partner/crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig) come for moral support. Also along for the ride is Gertie’s stepbrother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), who’s a huge “Camp Bloodbath” fan, and Adderall-popping mean girl Vicki (Nina Dobrev) shows up in an attempt to win back her ex, Chris. When a fire engulfs the packed theater, Max and the other four manage to slice through the screen to exit, but instead, they somehow get transported directly into the movie and its summer-camp setting of 1986. Stuck on a 92-minute loop of watching the yellow van of camp counselors go by, the five eventually agree to hop in and go to Camp Blue Finch. Max tries coping with seeing her mom as Nancy, “the shy girl with the clipboard and the guitar” who will meet her fate to legendary slasher Billy Murphy, but she must set sentiment aside and stick to the rules of the slasher genre if she and her friends want to escape, unlike the rest of the movie’s soon-to-be-slashed camp counselors.
Kicking off with the “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma”-ish sounds that echo the score of a certain 1980 slasher pic, The Final Girls begins with the cannily made trailer of “Camp Bloodbath” that would fit right in with the fake trailers of the 2007 Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino schlock-palooza Grindhouse (“Pack your bags for ‘Camp Bloodbath,’ where the only marshmallow that will roast . . . is your sanity!”). In order for one to buy the blend of reality and movie ‘reality’ that the far-out premise employs, the viewer must simply go along with the fantastical rabbit hole the ‘real’ characters enter (at first, one of them questions if it’s a collective dream). Once Max, Chris, Gertie, Vicki, and Duncan find themselves in the movie and hope to survive by sticking close to Paula (Chloe Bridges), the tough-chick counselor whom the title of “final girl” went to in the original film, the film changes the rules of slasher pics (i.e. don’t have sex and you might stay around longer) and hands the title to someone else. The film-within-a-film concept has been done to death, but director Todd Strauss-Schulson expertly pulls it off with a satirical freshness. He has a field day throwing cinematic devices – like flashbacks, voice-over narration, on-screen titles, musical cues, and slow-motion – into the mix. It is also a very slick-looking film. Attention to production and costume design go a long way, and the filmmakers go whole hog for fluid, swooping camerawork and 360-degree rotations.
As the film’s rock-solid center, Taissa Farmiga (TV’s American Horror Story) embodies the exact qualities associated with the final girl: identifiable and strong-willed but vulnerable. Farmiga’s Max is the grounding force between the absurdist situation and the warm, unexpectedly touching mother-daughter relationship with Amanda, as well as movie character Nancy (both portrayed by a sweet Malin Akerman). The pre-title sequence sets up the emotional groundwork, as Amanda leaves an audition and feels defeated for realizing her claim to fame will always be getting murdered in a cheesy slasher movie. With Max in the car, Amanda tells her daughter that she is the only thing in her life she feels she got right and before the fatal accident, they share one last ride listening to Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” which gets a repeat use that’s wonderfully moving as it is tragic. As Nancy, Akerman also finds extra pathos in a nubile slasher-movie character who doesn’t realize she is in a movie but, from her friendship with Max, faces the sad fact that her sealed on-screen fate will prevent her from experiencing life.
The rest of the cast is terrific down the line, as well. Alexander Ludwig (who, through sheer synchronicity, already co-starred in another film this year called Final Girl) is the epitome of the heroine’s hunky love interest as Chris, being charismatic and protective and not a dumb-as-a-rock jock. Alia Shawkat specializes in the kind of sardonic best friend role and she does it well again here as Gertie, throwing off some very funny asides. As the snotty Vicki, Nina Dobrev (TV’s The Vampire Diaries) is quite amusing in mean-girl mode, but instead of forcing the viewer to hope she goes first by slasher Billy’s machete, the role that was written allows the actress to bring smarts and shades of humanity to a seemingly stock part. Thomas Middleditch (TV’s Silicon Valley) endearingly combines film geekdom and comic-relief duties as Duncan, who’s so excited to be in “Camp Bloodbath” that he’s able to mouth the dialogue early on and later comments on the bad writing. The actors broadly playing the token stereotypes in “Camp Bloodbath” are also enthusiastic hoots, including an over-the-top Adam DeVine as pseudo-macho counselor Kurt and Angela Trimbur, a genuine scene-stealer, as squeaky, dim-witted sexpot Tina, who’s forced to wear a life preserver and oven mitts until Max and company are ready to let her strip down and draw attention to the machete-wielding Billy.
The Final Girls may not take full advantage of the true R-rated nature of slasher movies in terms of gratuitous female nudity and gore, but director Todd Strauss-Schulson gets everything else right. His affection for the often-campy genre is in full salute the way through, including an ending that makes sense and would be criminal to give away (a cut to the final credits with Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” is a cute touch). The emotional through-line concerning heroine Max’s loss of her mother and strength to let go is handled beautifully, without ever turning over into cornball sap. A revitalizing love letter to the genre and reminder that not all PG-13 horror movies are cursed to be watered-down mediocrities, The Final Girls is thoroughly fun and cheeky, perfectly cast, briskly paced, and not without a big bleeding heart. This is a genre lover’s wet dream.
The Final Girls opens in select theaters and on VOD platforms Friday, October 9.