Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson
Like Jumangi, this is a movie that sucks its ensemble cast into a limited, fictional world dominated by a handful of tropes from which they have to play the game, and thus comment on it, to escape.
In The Final Girls, a group of teenagers find themselves trapped inside the summer camp from a cult classic horror film, the made up Camp Bloodbath. The cult film is a murderer’s row of old horror genre conventions and character types. There is the dumb jock, the quiet but easily seduced girl, the party girl, the more nerdy type and the “final” girl, the one destined to defeat the machete-wielding murder because she still has her virginity. Our cast of characters will try at first to escape the movie only to accept, inevitably, that they must play the game in order to escape.
This is a pretty straightforward B movie, and it tries to do what 2012’s Cabin in the Woods did much better, namely point out the hilarious, peculiar set of rules which so many horror films have abided by. The joke is clear, and the genre tropes have been pointed out already, so in some ways it feels like The Final Girls is just coasting in Cabin in the Woods‘ wake, picking up the joke scraps that other film left on the ground.
Still, this is an enjoyable, simple watch, and it’s structured around a mother-daughter relationship that provides the movie with surprising heart, even if that core identity is never fully fleshed out.
The main character is Max (Taissa Farmiga), and her mother, Amanda (Malin Åkerman) played Nancy in Camp Bloodbath, a role she has never been able to escape as she trudges through later auditions. A brief scene establishes her and Max’s relationship before they get into a car accident in which Amanda dies.
Max is encouraged to stop by a screening of Camp Bloodbath at the local theater. Seeing her mother onscreen is profoundly traumatic, though no one seems to notice or care, and after a freak accident leads to a fire breaking out, Max and company slice their way through the screen to escape out the back of the theater.
Except that they then find themselves inexplicably in the movie, something that is never explained and shouldn’t ever be explained. All that matters is that they’re there.
They first must assess the risk, at least once they accept they’re stuck here. It may seem a bit like Westworld, with the murderer posing no threat to them, but soon he chops down Thomas Middleditch, and it’s clear they can be killed too.
Then they have to deal with the broad character types of the slasher film and convince them that they’re all in danger. The rest of the camp counselors don’t believe the legend of Billy Murphy until they see the blood splattered on Alia Shawkat’s face (from the flashback they watch a la Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol), leading to one of the funnier moments of the movie. In that scene the slasher characters all lose their minds, knowing the legend is suddenly real, mocking in part the tendency of horror movie characters to not understand the danger they’re in.
The plot unfolds as horror movies do, with characters picked off one by one until our hero (Max) remains. The plot is well-put together but unspectacular, following horror storytelling beats and only occasionally justifying them by calling attention to those same tropes.
The Final Girls is a fun little movie, but it only ever scratches the surface with some of the more truly horrifying aspects of the film, most notably Max interacting with Nancy, the character her deceased mother played.
I can’t wrap my mind around just how horrifying it would be to talk face to face with a loved one who is effectively a completely new person, no idea who you are. Max will try to get close with Nancy/her mother, all while reckoning with the idea that this person is nothing like her mother and can’t come back with her. Her character motivation, in its simplest form, is to save her mother, and this character arc ends, somehow, on a positive note. In reality, not that there really is any reality here, this would seem to be a devastating turn of events that could screw you up for life and bankroll several therapists’ summer vacations.
All that being said, there is some poignancy to the moments between Max and Nancy, at least to Max’s desire to save Nancy. I think what I latched onto most about this is the futility of Max’s goal and her commitment to it nonetheless. Again, the movie never really touches on that futility because it gives Max a sense of victory even while she’s forced to watch her mother die at the hands of the machete-toting masked killer.
I really liked this movie, and it was exactly what I would expect it to be. One day, though, I’d love to see a genre-mixing movie like this that really tries to deal with the weight of what the characters are experiencing. I can only imagine it being done by someone like David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman, someone who has a dedicated interest in our deeper psyches, the abstract things which terrify us and which may be harder to replicate onscreen.
Lastly, I’m a sucker for some outtakes, but putting them right at the end of the movie always reeks of “we didn’t think this was very good.” The same thing happened at the end of Hal Ashby’s Being There, and some people believe Peter Sellers could have won Best Actor were it not for the outtakes breaking the movie’s spell.
Up Next: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), 6 Balloons (2018)