'The Final Girls' can't do exactly what it wants, yet winds up doing more than expected
The Final Girls Vertical Entertainment
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Screenplay: Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Thomas Middleditch and Adam DeVine
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 28 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Sometimes it's OK to just give a movie a break. That's kinda how I feel about judging The Final Girls, Todd Strauss-Schulson's lightly deconstructive send-up of teen slasher movies. No, it doesn't completely work (in fact, there are certain aspects in which it overtly fails to stay true to its intentions), yet its successes are terrifically realized and distinctly memorable.
Yes, it generally wades in the same territory as countless other meta horror comedies, but it also has surprising warmth and sadness, and a too-rare ability to balance its parody with its humanity. Yes, the finished product feels heavily compromised ... and yet it remains so likable, it puts me in a forgiving mood. There's plenty about The Final Girls that either doesn't land or doesn't go far enough, but dammit, I think it's pretty good regardless.
Let's begin at the source, which is slasher movies. More specifically, teen slasher movies. More specifically than that, teen slasher movies that take place at (or near) summer camps. Your Friday the 13ths. Your Sleepaway Camps.
Now, any self-respecting genre send-up or homage knows its genre backward and forward. And to give credit where it's due, The Final Girls does know its influences. It knows what to play with and why to play around with it. Its meta jokes work specifically within its genre contexts. Its references are targeted.
But it also surely knows that the films whose collective universe it is taking place within are very bloody, very explicit, and very R-rated. Hell, the original Friday the 13th was initially slapped with an X-rating. So the most conspicuous thing about The Final Girls is that it is PG-13, and thus has a slasher whose killings are virtually bloodless, and horny teenagers whose sex is sexless. I am not inside the head of Strauss-Schulson or writers Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin, but I'd find it kinda hard to believe that this network-TV level of content is what they had in mind when they envisioned a movie designed with notoriously gratuitous movies in mind.
Consider an homage to Hollywood musicals that didn't have any song-and-dance numbers. Or an homage to boxing movies without any fight scenes. The way certain parts of this movie play out, it's less a satirical take on a slasher movie than a satirical take on what they can show you in a trailer for a slasher movie. It functions as an unfortunate handicap, because the filmmakers simply can't tell their story in the cinematic dialect of the films to which they're paying tribute. It comes across as a contradiction. Just look at the great The Cabin in the Woods and think of all the things it was able to do precisely because it had the freedom of the R rating.
In all honesty, you can do parody this way, subverting the content level of one type of movie with the direct and deliberate use of another content level. Walk Hard did this in its send-up of digestible, cookie-cutter musical biopics - punctuating the templated storyline with hysterically absurd use of violence and nudity (the waist-down full-frontal male nudity in the hotel room; Dewey Cox's brother getting literally chopped in half with a machete, etc).
I imagine using PG-13 standards to satirize R content would be a more difficult task. However, to the credit of Strauss-Schulson, Miller and Fortin, they find some creative solutions around that handicap, and boast enough strengths in other areas that they're somehow able to pull it off despite the odds.
One sequence in particular is able to counteract those limitations. It's the climax of the movie, so I'll tiptoe around the details. But it's here that Strauss-Schulson and cinematographer Elie Smolkin show their understanding of the heightened, movie-fied reality they're working within. We begin inside a darkened chapel, where shafts of pale blue light puncture the characters (to the extent that it almost feels like Janusz Kaminski shot it). Then we move outside, where the over-the-top visual style achieves its own kind of sublime, pop-art abstraction. As [redacted] faces down against Billy, the chainsaw-wielding killer, they're silhouetted against a blue backdrop of intense fog. And just above, the sky, with its obligatory dark, ominous clouds, is a deep crimson. This is not just inspired imagery, but an instance of the filmmakers using visual choices to express what they can't show us explicitly. Those clouds, that fog - they stand in for the emotional and visceral force of what violence is left off-screen.
There are a lot of visual details and storytelling devices deployed in very specific fashion throughout the movie, but one thing that distinguishes The Final Girls is the way those ideas are used to enhance, and push forward, a surprisingly sincere drama unfolding amidst all the B-movie chaos. It would be amusing enough for the film to be about a bunch of teen characters watching a cult horror movie who then find themselves actually inside the movie they are (or were) watching. But to use that as a pretext for a teen girl's attempt to reconcile the sudden death of her mother? That's tricky, but the filmmakers quite impressively manage to make it work.
There's real care put into the development of the relationship between Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her mother Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman). It's something as simple as a car ride in the opening scene that establishes their closeness. Those moments in the car together make for a powerful memory, as it's the last time Max sees her mom. The scene concludes in a violent car accident that kills Amanda, leaving Max without both a mother and a best friend.
The tricky thing about getting over this death is that Amanda Cartwright was a rather famous scream queen - or at least she was back in the '80s, when she starred in what would become a cult horror classic, Camp Bloodbath. She never achieved the acting success she dreamed of, but she still looms large in the eyes of the film's cult fan base. And, not unlike the plot of Scream 4, a passionate segment of that fan base happens to reside in Max's hometown, and the big event on the one-year anniversary of Amanda's death is a special screening of Camp Bloodbath and its sequel(s). Running this mini-festival is Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), a horror fanatic who serves as this movie's equivalent of Scream's Jamie Kennedy. But a fire breaks out at the theatre during the screening, and the only way of escape is through the projection screen ... and the next thing Max and her friends know, they're in the movie itself. It's kinda like The Last Action Hero for horror buffs. The familiar yellow VW van drives by, and the actors they've idolized on screen show up saying all the lines they (or at least Duncan) know by heart.
And so, not only are they faced with the task of trying to survive a horror movie in which they know there is only one survivor, and not only do they have to play by the rules firmly established by the genre, but Max has the opportunity, both enviable and unenviable, of being face to face with her mom once again. Only ... it's actually a character named "Nancy," and she has no idea who Max is.
Farmiga's performance kinda makes the movie, justifying a tricky dramatic angle that most similar movies couldn't pull off (or wouldn't even attempt). One moment in particular stands out, during a shared scene with Akerman; Max is trying to explain to "Nancy" that there's a world outside of this movie, and there's a hopefulness to the words she's saying, and the light in her eyes that believes those words ... but it's all tinged with her devastated understanding that when this movie ends, so, too, will "Nancy" - this perfect facsimile of her mother. It's a touching moment in a movie that easily could have gotten away with insincerity.
There's a lot to enjoy elsewhere, too. The film makes mostly strong use of a wide variety of meta devices. The characters literally play out certain scenes in slow motion (it takes them a few seconds before they realize what's happening). Title cards occupy physical, three-dimensional space. When Camp Bloodbath goes to a flashback, the gang finds themselves in black-and-white for a few minutes. And then there's the unspoken joke about all of the actors in the teen horror movie being way too old for teenage roles. (Akerman is 37, Adam Devine is 32, Angela Trimbur is 34, and in this context they're all a perfect fit.)
Even as I think about what The Final Girls couldn't, wouldn't or wasn't allowed to do, those things are overshadowed by what the film does well. In that regard, there's plenty - both in the playfulness of the genre parody and the uncommon warmth that drives it home. The fans of Camp Bloodbath would be proud.