I rarely need to see a movie more than once before assessing it, but in the case of Todd Strauss-Schulson's The Final Girls, I watched it twice in twenty-four hours. That was two weeks ago, and key scenes still loop in my head. Given that this is ostensibly another horror-comedy aimed at skewering 80s slasher-movie conventions (à la Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and The Cabin in the Woods), you might think those scenes involve over-the-top gore gags or raunchy jokes. In fact, the PG-13-rated film is practically bloodless, and not all of the wry, meta material works. But that’s okay, because the movie’s intense emotional core is just as likely to rip your guts out and show them to you.
Let’s rewind the tape. Yes, you read that rating correctly, and The Final Girls’ conspicuous lack of blood and boobs was, honestly, a hurdle I had to clear on first viewing. This has nothing to do with lascivious thrills, and everything to do with effective homage. As Siskel and Ebert lamented back in the day, the entire point of these low-budget cash machines is to revel in attractive teens’ inventive demises. One didn’t go to Slaughter High or Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter for the screenplay.
To appreciate what Strauss-Schulson and writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller achieve here, you need to understand that The Final Girls isn’t strictly a genre send-up: it’s a meditation on loss, packaged in a reality-displacement fantasy, and decorated with a loving dissection of horror movies. Taissa Farmiga plays Max, the teenage daughter of Amanda (Malin Akerman), a struggling actress who can’t live down the slasher movie she did thirty years ago.
Without giving too much away, Max and her friends get sucked into the reality of Amanda’s claim to fame, a 1986 body-count picture called Camp Bloodbath. The movie-within-the-movie is practically a sentient being that won’t let its real-world prisoners escape, and which presents the medium’s signature storytelling techniques (slow-motion, flashbacks, flying titles, etc.) as obstacles to be navigated—in addition to the masked, knife-wielding scourge of Camp Blue Finch, Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris).
Max and her friends must figure out the rules of their new universe, which tend to coincide with what we know about horror movie conventions: drugs and sex equal death, and the last virgin standing is destined to engage the killer in a climactic battle. Unfortunately, they are surrounded by horror movie characters whose lack of dimension makes them fodder instead of allies.
Max befriends Nancy who, because she is played by Amanda, looks and sounds just like her mother. The trouble is, Nancy was written as a victim, not the victorious “final girl”. Max does her best to ensure that Nancy remains the “shy girl with the clipboard and the guitar”—no easy feat, with obnoxious-but-charming jock Kurt (Adam Devine) on the prowl.
Visually, The Final Girls is an often striking call-back to late-80s high-class horror. Between the stormy, abandoned-chapel scene whose red-and-green lit-stained-glass hues echo A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, and the dramatic slow-mo shot of Jason-esque Billy Murphy leaping from a shattered window with non-CGI flames rippling across his body, the filmmakers show that they’ve done their homework and are gunning for an “A”. There’s an obsessive graphic novel quality to the composition, particularly in an iconic scene near the end, where a silhouetted Max stalks vengefully through the woods, wielding a machete that appears to be almost as big as her tiny frame.
Conceptually, The Final Girls is a mash-up of Peggy Sue Got Married and Final Destination. The flesh-and-blood characters find themselves at the mercy of a slasher movie, yes, but they display an unusual degree of introspection that goes beyond the kind of surface self-awareness we often see in meta-horror films. The "mean girl" in Max's crew, Vicki (Nina Dobrev), knows that Camp Bloodbath needs her to fulfill a particular role (and, more importantly, to exit at a particular time). But as the film course-corrects to account for the interlopers, Vicki allows us a good look at her motivations. It's an empathy play that lends tremendous heft to her penultimate scene, and speaks to something Siskel and Ebert were driving at--the idea that body-count pictures are often cavalier in their disposal of characters who, like their audience, had hopes, dreams, and families before they came across the demented maniac du jour.
Max and Nancy's relationship provides The Final Girls an emotional through-line that got to me during both viewing. Max doesn't let on that Nancy is (sort of) her mom, but their bond transcends celluloid and offers both characters a shot at redemption for their unresolved real-world issues. Believe it or not, the climactic dance scene, set to "Bette Davis Eyes", is one of the most meaningful and touching moments I've seen in a film all year. Farmiga and Akerman elevate the material, creating yet another degree of self-awareness: they're too good for the movie their characters (more precisely, their characters' characters) are stuck in. And this surprising attention to detail makes up for every joke that doesn't land and every cutting-room gore gag that weighs down other parts of the film.
About that rating...
I'm conflicted. Strauss-Schulson, Fortin, and Miller don't owe us R-rated squib splatters and gratuitous nudity, because The Final Girls is not really that kind of movie. But pushing the death scenes just a little bit further (to, say, Walking Dead levels) would have anchored me when it came time for certain characters to die. The filmmakers employ some truly bug-nuts editing and camerawork to distract us from the fact that the stabbings, head-crushes, and bear-trap mutilations are adolescent-viewer-friendly--but it's impossible to enjoy these tricks because we know something is being hidden from us. It's the gore equivalent of watching Scarface on network TV.
I don't know if The Final Girls was conceived as a neutered meta-slasher/comedy, or if there's an unrated cut lurking in the home-video shadows. I hope there is. The comedy and concepts are mostly spot-on; the heart is, I suspect, much bigger than most audiences are ready for; but the conspicuous toothlessness of the kills lets some of the air out of this vehicle's tires. Maybe I'll be more forgiving of the film's flaws the third time around. Or the fourth. Or the fifth.