Finally Meeting the Final Girls of My Dreams...

The Final Girls (2015)
Dir: Todd Strauss-Schulson
TC4P Rating: 7/9

Getting exactly what you want from a movie is both infectious and dangerous. Infectious, because it brightens the rest of your day (and even week), you get so excited because you want to share that feeling with everyone you meet, and you now can't imagine life without that film being a part of it. (How did I ever cope beforehand?) And dangerous, because you now want every film you see in the same genre to meet those same expectations. This would all be very nice, but unless you are someone who is either daft or just too easy to please about everything, it is a truly Herculean task.

The Final Girls is not a great work of art. It won't win or even get nominated for any major awards (not even a leg lamp). It will not change mankind or bring about world peace. But The Final Girls did give me precisely what I was looking for in an presumed horror-comedy based around the increasingly popular and ironic notion of the "final girl," the last, would-be distaff victim of a slasher film who rises above everything to come out victorious (in most cases) against the film's monstrous killer.

Last week, I posted a review of another film (the first originally announced for production as it were) that was released this year (after being shelved for a while) called Final Girl. That film was an absolute disappointment in relation to the excitement I felt when I first heard a film with that title was being made. Underneath that frosting of eagerness, Final Girl turned out to taste of nothing but regret. [You can read my review here.] Worst of all, it had essentially purloined that phrase to have it rejigged into something that had nothing to do with the style of film from which the term sprang to ironic life.

But enough about the lesser film. Here we have The Final Girls, from director Todd Strauss-Schulson, whose resume, when first surveyed, doesn't appear to hold much promise. The biggest film (or mark against him, depending on your opinion of it) to date was A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas, which I enjoyed far more than the second film in the series, though not even close to as much as the first. Other than that, while Strauss-Schulson has many shorts, videos and TV episodes listed in his filmography, I have not seen a single one of them. So, I really didn't have a solid grasp of his capabilities going into this film.

As for the screenwriters, Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin, there was only one other writing credit on their collective resume, and that was a short film from last year called Dawn. Nominated at the Sundance Film Festival for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize, Dawn is a decent first effort by novice director Rose McGowan (yes, that Rose McGowan, who is now set to helm her feature film debut, The Pines), but its screenplay is fairly obvious and doesn't betray the sense of humor at large throughout The Final Girls.

In settling down for a viewing, what I was hoping for, after seeing the other film, was a project that embraced the concept of "the final girl" properly. Beyond that were faint wishes that the makers would have some fun with the concept, and not churn out just another sour slasher film that only winked mildly at its audience. As it turns out, The Final Girls doesn't even know how to wink mildly. It walks up, sticks its eye as close to yours as it can, tilts its head as it winks its eye as blatantly as possible, opens its eye up again, smiles a broad, shit-eating grin, and then jabs you in the ribs with a sharp elbow to make sure you received the joke efficiently.

This is not to say the film doesn't have its subtleties. It actually thrives on them. The story is set up sweetly but tragically as we meet Max (played by Taissa Farmiga, Vera's half-as-young little sister) and her mother, Amanda Cartwright (a radiantly wistful Malin Akerman). Amanda is a former scream queen from the late '80s who has never been able to shake the typecasting wrought by her appearance in Camp Bloodbath, a very Friday the 13th-type slasher that has gone on to cult status. Rejected at yet another audition because of her past, a frantic Amanda doesn't pay attention to the road as she goads Max into lip-syncing to her favorite song, Bette Davis Eyes, and when Max accidentally drops coffee on Amanda's 8x10s, the car is sideswiped and sent rolling to Amanda's death.

Three years later, Max hasn't recovered emotionally from her mother's demise, but she is still susceptible to other people getting her to take part in things she really shouldn't. Her friends, the hippieish Gertie (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) and the purposefully bitchy Vicki (of The Vampire Diaries and DeGrassi, neither of which I have ever seen), meet her at a midnight movie showing of Camp Bloodbath, for which he has been talked into making an appearance in honor of her late mother by hipster geek Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). Max also meets the super hunky Chris (Alexander Ludwig, who coincidentally happened to play the main fratboy villain in Final Girl), with whom Max will sort of bond on their adventure (their certain romance is an underplayed aspect of the screenplay).

Via the interference of some utter jerks smoking and drinking during the screening, a fire breaks out in the movie theatre. With the exits blocked by screaming Camp Bloodbath fans, Max picks up a machete, the primary weapon of the film's villain, Billy, which has been dropped by an erstwhile fan in the audience. She uses the machete to cut open the movie screen to make an escape, and her friends follow her...

...into Camp Bloodbath the film. What we have in The Final Girls is a variation of what many will say is The Purple Rose of Cairo, but I would prefer to point out Buster Keaton's seminal Sherlock Jr. (1924), one of my favorite films where Buster is a projectionist who falls asleep in his booth and dreams himself not just into the movie, but also in entering the film through the screen from the stage in the movie theatre, where he has to deal initially with the scenery changing constantly around him. Soon enough, he becomes the main character in the film.

Time is not the same inside the film Camp Bloodbath, and the five real life people now have to learn how to play by the rules of the slasher movie they are in, where even the hint of sexual contact gets you killed, and scenes play in a loop if you don't go along with the plot correctly. 
There are plenty of jokes made at the expense of (and big laughs pulled from) the stereotypical characters found in your average slasher film, and the characters act largely in the preprogrammed manner in which you expect. They do stupid things, and there are terrifying results for that stupid behavior. 

The movie gets a lot of mileage out of scenes where the lost group continually meets the same VW bus every 92 minutes exactly (the running time of the film) or where teen vixen Tina (portrayed to a perky T [and A] by Angela Trimbur) needs to be tied up in a life preserver and oven mitts to keep her from popping her top off and thus invite serial killer Billy to attack again. Comedian Adam Devine does his intentionally annoying best as the would-be hunk of the film within the film, who is made up almost entirely of testosterone, and who can't even breathe without making a sexual reference (even though he doesn't really need to breathe at all). Especially effective is the use of how a flashback works inside the film within the film, which may come in handy later for the protagonists (or maybe not sometimes).

Behind the laughs though, something else pulses at the center of The Final Girls. The appearance of these five "other counsellors" in Camp Bloodbath (the actual camp, not the film, as the characters within are at first unaware they exist only inside a movie) has flustered them somewhat, and has at least one of them -- Nancy (also Akerman), the "sweet but shy girl with a guitar" who is Max's mother's character in Camp Bloodbath -- pondering her fate. Doomed to sleep with Kurt, and thereby die at the hand of Billy, over and over again, Nancy begins to bond with Max, who -- as she was in real life -- is still fiercely protective of her mother.

While the more jaded of you out there might see this component as unnecessary sappiness, the scenes between Max and the film version of her mother are what gives real heart to The Final Girls. Without this vital element, the film could just come off as another heartless spoof of horror films. In a film set up as a parody of low art, Farmiga and Akerman impart their characters with enough real feeling, that ultimately makes The Final Girls a comic meditation on loss and how to move forward from it. There are just a lot of broad laughs along the way to cushion you.


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