SXSW Review: The Final Girls, the Sweetest Slasher Ever Told

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FinalGirls

Typically, metatextual horror reveals something about the genre itself, being comments on its tropes, its filmmaking, its era. Characters know the rules, the stories and all of the ways to die. How rare then to see a film less a thesis, than an emotional journey, a tubular trip into the movies as a way to grieve. That’s what The Final Girls is: stylish, silly and maybe the sweetest slasher ever told. 

What The Final Girls isn’t, is terribly period accurate or maybe wholly understanding of the horror devotees’ love of cult cinema and camp slashers. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson, while clearly informed of and inspired by the likes of Friday the 13th, The Burning and Madman isn’t necessarily interested in getting it all so right, or making it all so mean. That’s okay, because what he does do, aside from tell a genuinely involving story of a mother and daughter through fantastical elements, is end up understanding our attachment to some of our cult figures and scream queens.

That’s who Malin Akerman’s Amanda is, a struggling actress whose role of note lies in slasher Camp Bloodbath, a short shorts, 80s era, hack-and-slash party picture. Like many performers who’d likely prefer to live their less-than-reputable legacies down, Amanda is weary and hoping to move beyond Bloodbath. Her daughter Max (the wonderfully natural and decidedly un-CW Taissa Farmiga) certainly isn’t embarrassed, and though the two clearly struggle financially, their strong bond is established effortlessly in an easy, conversational car ride; one that sadly doesn’t end well.

Also established here is Strauss-Schulson’s verve for visual storytelling. The Final Girls is a stylish, often dynamic film. Rather than hold on a wide of Amanda’s car fly down the open road, for instance, Strauss-Schulson’s high camera kicks into gear the second she drives into frame. The energy is almost immediately destabilizing and totally refreshing. The Final Girls is more comedy than horror, and a studio one that, a type of movie not contemporarily known for embracing film grammar and the picturesque.

A year after the accident, Max is still reeling from the death of her mother. Supported by an ensemble of friends, again easily inhabited by the likes of Alia Shawkat (as Gertie) and Alexander Ludwig (as atypical jock Chris), Max is convinced to attend an evening showing of Camp Bloodbath by town horror fan Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). During the screening, a theater fire ensues and Max and crew, including Chris’ mean girl ex Vicki (Nina Dobrev) cut through the screen to escape. Instead, they Last Action Hero into the movie and find themselves at camp for the summer, or for at least 92 minutes.

The Final Girls runs the gamut of comedy, from quips to big visual punchlines, like Zucker Brothers-esque work with cars crashing into onscreen text and Camp Bloodbath itself on a constant loop if the kids don’t narratively engage. Of course this gives Max more time with her mother, here as virginal counselor Nancy. Following their emotional bond, Final Girls and its characters make small detours, nicely engaging with the period charm of slashers and both questioning some of their more retrograde values and stereotypes, and celebrating the heroics of final girls. The characters, including the kids transported and the more heightened slasher counselors, are all able to transcend their “types” via the culture clash. Vicki’s mean girl act drops in a dire, unknowable situation and Chris, already a genuinely sweet guy, is able to slightly pare down his counterpart, the typically narcissistic ladies’ man bully dude, as inhabited goofily and gloriously by Workaholics’ Adam DeVine.

Though DeVine, Tory N. Thompson (as sweat-banded musichead Blake), Chloe Bridges (as bubble gum bad girl Paula), Akerman and Angela Trimbur (as the promiscuous, dancing Tina) are all playing “types” informed by the more shallow slashers, the kids treat them as people, revealing something about why we, as horror fans, attach to some our favorite performers. The characters may not be terribly deep, and sometimes the actors not so skilled, but the personalities shine through. There is an inner life, even to types, especially ones we live through an ordeal with, like Amy Steel in Friday the 13th Part II, or Heather Langenkamp, whose Nancy I still fruitlessly hope doesn’t die every single time I revisit Dream Warriors.

This sentiment, plus the reconnection given to Max and her Mother lend Final Girls such true emotion, which keeps Strauss-Schulson from getting too vicious with killer Billy’s (an amalgamation of bullied slashers and Cropsy) behavior. The kills, often silly and unexpected are not particularly gory. This feels a choice of restraint, rather than being neutered. Too gross would offset just how involving The Final Girls is. The deaths and action sequences however, including a requisite booby trap set piece, are elaborately and stunningly staged, something frankly far more powerful than overflowing splatter geysers. Using motion control, Strauss-Schulson presents a lively, stimulating and contemporary edge on campers fighting back.

That’s not to mention the sort of tonal miracle of Max and her mother’s big moment, staged wide under purely cinematic storm, with the threat of Billy looming and a carefree shake to “Bette Davis Eyes.” It’s likely The Final Girls’ most significant scene, for its sentimental weight yes, but also because it embodies the unexpected nature of the film. I never thought I’d see, or love another slick, cinematically striking studio-horror comedy, let alone tear up to Kim Carnes.