THE FINAL GIRLS (2015) review
written by: M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller
produced by: Michael London and Janice Williams
directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson
rating: PG-13 (for horror violence, some crude and sexual material, language and drug use)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: March 13, 2015 (SXSW) and October 9, 2015 (limited theaters, iTunes and Amazon)
We’ve all rolled our eyes during 80s horror movies as we watch inevitable victims do their best to escape from an indomitable slasher, only to make idiot moves like go down that dark basement or scream as they run and trip. We laugh, thinking we’d do better. A movie like “The Final Girls”knows this and has us follow another group of young moviegoers as they navigate their own survival in a similar setting. There have been comedy/horror mashups, such as “Shaun of the Dead” and “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” – comedies that have mocked or homaged horror genre conventions – but there’s a fresh and surprisingly emotional approach here that you’d be hard-pressed to find in its ads or trailers.
“The Final Girls” opens with a retro trailer for the fictional “Camp Blood Bath”, which comes off as an obvious nod to “Friday the 13th”. When the trailer is over, we realize that we were watching it on a smart phone with a teenage girl. She is Max Cartwright (Elise Alexis Covell), daughter of scream queen actress, Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) and she is sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car while her mother is auditioning, who returns to the vehicle distressed with her “we’ll let you know” response, knowing that casting agents only recognize her from the slasher flick we just saw the trailer for, released some twenty years ago.
Amanda offers advice to her daughter, stating, “if you ever become an actress, don’t ever do a slasher flick”. To which Max replies, “you wouldn’t catch me dead in a slasher flick”. They continue in the car, Max worrying about bills and Amanda lamenting a guy who’s ditching her, while cranking Kim Carne’s “Bette Davis Eyes”.
This is the start of a great set-up from director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, which establishes a close relationship between a mother and a daughter and an awareness of our knowledge of classic slasher flicks. It’s also a foreboding set-up that leads to a sudden car wreak that kills Amanda, all of which transpires before the film’s title spreads across the screen, 80’s horror style.
Three years later, we catch up with Max (now played by Taissa Farmiga), who now lives with her aunt. She’s reluctantly coerced into attending a retro slasher double-feature of “Camp Blood Bath 1 & 2” at the local theater by her movie geek friend, Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) and is soon accompanied by more friends, BFF Gertie (Alia Shawkat), mean girl snob Vicki (Nina Dobrev), and hunky Chris (Alexander Ludwig) along with audience filled with horror fans – and it just happens to be the anniversary of her mother’s death. Awkward.
They watch as Amanda stars as Nancy, a camp counselor who explains to her friends the legend of Billy Murphy, who was bullied decades ago while attending camp. Then, after a sudden accident in the theater, Max and her friends find themselves pulled into the 1986 movie, gathering themselves in the forest of Camp Blue Finch. It takes a few minutes before they determine they are not dead, dreaming or insane – as surreal as it seems, they’re are actually in the movie with Max’s mother and her camp counselor buddies, Tina (Angela Trimbur) the slut and Kurt (Adam DeVine) the jock – two characters who are even more stereotypical than Max’s friends. Arriving late is Paula (Chloe Bridges) a tough girl counselor who is supposed to be the final girl who kills Billy.
So, they have no idea how to get out of the movie – something Max desperately wants – and find themselves having to follow along with a story that Duncan knows by heart. Specifically, the rules of the script, such as “everyone who has sex in the movie, dies” and “the final girl alive is a virgin who she kills Billy”. It’s very meta for the moviegoers in the film, but it’s also odd for the counselors when they figure out that these five new kids aren’t on the counselor roster. When Billy (Dan B. Norris and Eric Michael Carney in flashback) starts offing cast members as expected, Max and her friends need to figure out whether or not to intervene and if whatever they decide will strengthen their chances of getting back home. But with the new additions to the cast, will the movie play out the way it predictably should or do they even have the ability to change it’s course and save everyone from dying?
I’m not saying anything else about the story, but I will say that if you’re a fan of the horror genre, specifically the kind from the 80s that “The Final Girls” pays homage too, you will really get a kick out of this. I mentioned two other mashup type films earlier, yet as I was watching this movie, “The Cabin in the Woods” and “Pleasantville” also came to mind. If you’re familiar with those two, imagine this one being a mashup of them and yet impressing you with some unique stylistic choices, both in visuals and storytelling.
The cast of “The Final Girls” is so good. The standouts are the counselors, who are so appropriately one-note. They’re the kind of roles we’ve come to expect from all the classic slashers we’ve seen. DeVine has some great sexist one-liners and he really goes all-in committing himself to the role. Trimbur has the sexpot dingbat down and nails a hysterically memorable striptease. Of course, as Nancy, there’s a bit more for Akerman to work with, primarily because it’s so important for Farmiga’s Max to interact with her throughout the movie. It’s an odd thing to consider actually – Max wants to protect Nancy, who doesn’t even know that she’s in a movie or believes she’s a real character – and yet, can’t really reveal that she’s Nancy’s daughter, yet they’re practically the same age. It’s a dizzying, complex and quite touching predicament that these two characters are in and it makes the movie more and more intriguing to watch as it unfolds.
Strauss-Schulson, who previously directed “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas”, is now on my radar as a director to watch. He and Fortin and Miller deliver a movie that should be every bit as predictable as the movie within their movie, but it’s really not. It feels like anything can happen, especially in the third act in the way in which the remaining characters are able to manipulate Billy’s flashback origin to their advantage. The movie is going for a very nostalgic look and feel, from the colors and visual design, but what sticks out the most is how much fun was had making “The Final Girls” – stick around for an end credit blooper real for proof of that.
Some may bemoan the movies PG-13 content, but I actually enjoyed seeing less nudity and blood for a change. It adds to the way the movie zings instead of zangs, finding the audience on their toes instead of guessing everything that’ll happen next just because it’s happened that way in other movies. The satirical tone that Fortin and Miller offer along with the engaging characters they provide make up for anything you think may be lacking.
From start to finish, the movie feels like it’s made by fans of the genre, celebrating it with great zeal and a big heart, grounding us to an unexpected human element that has fun with its outrageous plot. “The Final Girls” exceeded my expectations with its unique and clever spin and its genuinely funny and heartfelt spirit of its performances. I’m down for a sequel.