A meta horror/comedy that's lacking in both horror and comedy.
The Final Girls
The slasher film is one of the few types of movies with the honour of having its own deconstruction be just as stale as its own genre. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson more or less opened and closed the book on self-aware slashers with Scream back in 1996, a film that’s almost two decades old (yes, Scream is now older than today’s average college freshman, but don’t think about it that way). But it wasn’t too long ago that Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard showed that the meta approach still had some life in it with The Cabin in the Woods, although it targeted the horror genre as a whole rather than one specific subgenre. Now, director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers M.A. Fortin & Joshua John Miller try their hand at lovingly taking down slasher tropes with The Final Girls, a glossy horror/comedy that’s severely lacking in both horror and comedy.
Max (Taissa Farmiga) still hasn’t gotten over the death of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman), an actress who got her break playing a piece of cannon fodder in the cheesy ‘80s slasher Camp Bloodbath. A tragic car accident took Amanda’s life several years ago, and for Max the film, and her mother’s death scene in it, is more traumatizing than entertaining. But her personal issues don’t matter to Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the stepbrother of her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat). Duncan bribes Max to attend an anniversary screening of Camp Bloodbath and she accepts his offer, taking Gertie and her classmate/romantic interest Max (Alexander Ludwig) along. A freak accident at the screening causes a fire to break out, and Max, Gertie, Duncan, Chris and Chris’ ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) find themselves literally transported into Camp Bloodbath as they try to escape the theatre. With no idea how to get out of the movie, they decide the best way for them to get back into the real world is to play along, hoping to survive by the time the credits roll.
It’s hard to get a sense of what exactly The Final Girls wants to be. Is it a slasher with meta elements? A deconstruction? A satire? No matter what it is, the fact that it’s aware of its own tropes, formulas and clichés means it has to bring something to the table that’s smarter or better than the old familiars it’s lampooning. But The Final Girls really doesn’t have any ideas, preferring to just plop modern-day characters in a sleazy 1980s slasher and make sitcom-esque jokes about their cultural differences (just wait until you see how these camp counsellors react to an iPhone!). A lot of The Final Girl’s jokes feel lazy, as if the mere mention of a trope will generate laughs because of viewers’ familiarity with it. It’s tame at best, and reminiscent of the way a show like Family Guy will make an obscure pop culture reference both the set-up and punchline to a joke.
That laziness runs throughout The Final Girls, which never bothers to set up any consistency or logic once it enters Camp Bloodbath. The movie within the movie, which looks like your standard piece of ‘80s schlock (based on the fake trailer that opens The Final Girls), becomes a colourful fantasy land once Max and her crew enter it, and their decision to “play along” and let the movie play out doesn’t make much sense. Neither does the ‘80s setting itself, with Camp Bloodbath characters like the dumb, horny “jock” (Adam Devine) playing like a deleted scene from a Judd Apatow movie. And Strauss-Schulson’s style, with the camera whirling and moving all over the place, doesn’t mesh with the visually bland looks of the film(s) he’s taking inspiration from. The camera’s eccentricity is reminiscent of Sam Raimi and The Evil Dead, but its pointless purpose and showiness puts it more in line with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and American Horror Story.
So it comes as a surprise that The Final Girls’ biggest success is how well it establishes a strong emotional core. For Max, entering Camp Bloodbath gives her another chance to meet her mother, or more accurately her mother’s character Nancy. Max and Nancy’s relationship turns out to be the most captivating part of the film, largely due to the talents of Farmiga and Akerman (especially Akerman, a terrific comedic actress who uses her equally strong dramatic skills effectively here). And the rest of the cast give it their all too, and despite having little material to work with they make The Final Girls watchable. But a game cast can only take things so far, and the tired inconsistency of Strauss-Schulson’s film makes all of its attempts to wink, nod and nudge at the audience ring hollow. The Final Girls isn’t the first film to simultaneously indulge in and upend the rules of horror films, so it’s disappointing to watch it coast along on its own concept rather than try, well, anything remotely interesting or subversive. Films designed to call out its own genre’s traditions shouldn’t feel this safe.