In the time since cinematic slashers like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger had their heyday in the 1980s, we’ve seen plenty of comedic takes on the genre. There’s the satirically dark spins like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the more silly raunchiness with Club Dread or the less ambitious referential stab of Scary Movie. Yet, even when the laughs and trope dissection comes at a continuous pace, nine times out of ten these comedies miss something key; character investment. Aside from perhaps the Scream franchise, these comedic takes rarely have a desire to make these people worth caring about. The philosophy seems to be “why develop a character when you can just have more jokes?” This is something The Final Girls subverts substantially throughout its running time, emphasizing on character in a way that makes it stand alone within the horror subgenre.
The heart of The Final Girls comes from our main character Max (Taissa Farmiga). At the start of our story, Max is mourning her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman), a former scream queen of sorts who starred in a Friday the 13th knock off franchise Camp Bloodbath and died in a major car accident that Max survived. A few years later, Max is approached by her nerdy friend Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) as he begs her to be the guest of honor at a horror film retrospective he’s hosting that will screen the first two films in the Camp Bloodbath franchise. After begrudgingly agreeing and a series of magical circumstances, a few of the audience members–including Max, her friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), her former best friend Vicki (Nina Dobrev), Max’s crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and Duncan– are sucked into the film. There, they encounter the various camp counselor characters that have their minds stuck on sex, drugs and partying, including Amanda’s character Nancy. While desperately trying to find some way of bringing her mother back to the real world, Max and the rest of the group must attempt to survive the film without being slashed by the killer.
With The Final Girls, director Todd Strauss-Schulson (who brought such kinetic comedic energy to a one note comedy franchise with Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas) contrasts the real world and cinematic 80s landscape perfectly visually, casting the real world in muted drab colors that pale in comparison to the brightly lit almost pastel like hues of the Camp Bloodbath world. It’s almost as if our real world characters are in a HD restoration of this older slasher film that feels as vibrant and tactile as it could. This allows for the slasher tropes to breath in an environment that seems right out of the genre, but in a brighter sense that plays to the fantasy of the conceit with an almost Wizard of Oz style disparity from reality. Schulson’s knack for creative camera work lends to the comedic pacing, particularly when the characters attempt to kill the slasher villain and interact with the transitions. All of this serves to confirm the clear line of demarkation that not only adds to distinguishing the two worlds for audiences, but also plays into the fantasy Max is trying to keep alive: her mother.
That’s where the heart truly comes in. Right from the beginning traumatic car accident, we see the mother/daughter connection of Amanda and Max, being the only sort of family either have. This only makes the inciting incident of the car crash hurt all the more and starts the major theme of coming to grips with letting go of the past all the more heartfelt. As Max takes a more motherly role towards the Nancy character, it becomes both a comedic role reversal and an emotional anchor for all the film’s events that are perfectly sold by extremely genuine performances from Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman. The Final Girls feels like the most creative and best case scenario for an updated version of Back to the Future, with all the cultural clashes between the filmed fantasy portrayal of the 1980s hilariously conflicting with these modern teens. At the same time, the film allows these characters (both real world and otherwise) to have actual moments of fear about their potential deaths that gives a solid emotional groundwork for the jokes to play off of. Through this silly cinematic fantasy landscape, The Final Girls manages to serve as a comment on nostalgia and how joyful yet ultimately fleeting its fun can be as one faces the reality that comes slashing at their door.
Of course, The Finals Girls still consistently works at what it mainly should be: a horror comedy. The tropes of the slasher film are all there, mainly in terms of the archetypes of the characters within Camp Bloodbath. The two major highlights in this department are the machismo jock character Kurt (played with unapologetic meathead vibes by Workaholics‘ Adam DeVine) and the slutty airhead Tina (played with hilariously overly energetic goofiness by Angela Trimbur). Their attitudes perfectly represent the type of gender roles and sexual politics that were cultural reinforced in their time, which contrast hysterically with the sensibilities of these modern teens. The lighter tone does occasionally hinder the film’s overall effect on a horror level, mostly in that the gore and sex that one would find in the type of slashers The Final Girls is making fun of is mostly absent here. This will likely disappoint the bigger gore hounds who prefer a bit more of the horror in their horror comedies, but at the same time give The Final Girls a wider audience amongst younger audiences who may be drawn to the impressive cast of young talents from shows like The Vampire Diaries and American Horror Story.
The Final Girls, despite being more comedy than horror, is a film soaked in appreciation for the slasher film subgenre. With its shiny aesthetics, fourth wall breaking logic and cultural clashes, the film showcases a knowledge and love for the trappings of films like Halloween or Friday the 13th in a way that will likely amuse horror fans that may be slightly disappointed by the lack of true gore. Yet, the heartfelt story revolving around Max dealing with her mother’s death and the possibility of having her back in her life makes this far more than a mere slasher parody. The Final Girls is one of the few horror tinged films this year one could call genuinely sweet and it’s honestly refreshing to see in a year with more mean spirited one note horror comedies like Cooties. Films like this are proof that sincerity doesn’t hinder comedy or horror; it can strengthen both.
The Final Girls; (4 / 5)