The Final Girls deals with one of my favorite kinds of movies: the camp classic. You know, the “so bad they’re good” movies. The ones where people come together at midnight screenings, know all the lines, and dress up in costume. Here, we have a very specific kind of camp classic — slasher films. Over the top acting. Buckets upon buckets of blood. Gratuitous nudity. It’s all a lot of fun to watch if done in a properly, incompetent way, but that’s the thing. The movies we are dealing with are most certainly rated R movies. So, why one earth did they shoot this for a PG-13?
None of that opening is to say this is a bad movie. Not at all. I liked a lot of it, actually. But the film wants to have fun with all the tropes of these kinds of movies, but is afraid to actually show any of it. It makes it a bit difficult to buy into the world they are inhabiting if the filmmakers either can’t, or don’t, want to go there. Even with these issues, though, The Final Girls does deliver quite a lot of laughs, and the “learning how to let go” story at its core is surprisingly effective.
Max (Taissa Farmiga) is the daughter of beloved camp scream queen (Malin Akerman), known primarily for her role as Nancy in Camp Bloodbath, a heavy rip off of Friday the 13th. The two are in a car wreck that kills the mom, and Max has been trying to cope with her sudden death.
On the three year anniversary of her mother’s death, Max is persuaded into attending a special screening of Camp Bloodbath set up by her friend (Thomas Middleditch). During the movie, the theater sets ablaze through a completely convoluted circumstance, and the only exit not blocked by fire is behind the screen. When Max and her friends (Alia Shawkat, Alexander Ludwig, and Nina Dobrev) step through the screen, they reverse Purple Rose of Cairo into Camp Bloodbath.
It’s a premise with the potential for comedy gold, and it does deliver its fair share. Yes, you have the likes of Adam DeVine (“Workaholics”, Pitch Perfect) doing his Adam DeVine schtick. But you also have a lot of humor just from authentic character reactions. They don’t play with the genre as much as I would have thought here, but I actually kind of appreciate that. Had every joke been about the 1980s/2010s cultural divide or spoofing the slasher pic, it would have gotten exhausting really quick. Every person here has a very strong sense of character, and writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller capitalize on that.
Success here is not only in the humor, but also the surprising drama holding it all together. Max being face-to-face with her dead mother without her knowing she is her mom is a very interesting way of dealing with grief and getting another chance to say goodbye when you couldn’t the first time. It’s a narrative catharsis that works incredibly well, and the two are perfectly played by Farmiga and Akerman. Who would have thought the strongest element of this campy horror comedy would be the drama? A pleasant surprise.
For his part, director Todd Strauss-Schulson keeps this merely a good movie and not a great one. If they had toned down the CGI and given a more authentic feel to what Camp Bloodbath actually would have been, the jokes and even the drama would have benefit from existing in a fully realized environment. He shoots the film handsomely when it should be cheap. The colors are too crisp, and the lighting too polished.
I know it sounds like harping at this point, but I fully believe if you want to have fun with a genre, you need to truly live inside of it. Sleepaway Camp or even Maniac Cop have their fans for very specific reasons. These are reasons explicitly stated in the film as to why they love this particular movie. To not honor that is disappointing, and I think does a true disservice to the overall impact of The Final Girls.
The film is still a good time. The large ensemble cast are all great and each one is given many moments to shine. They serve the specific character comedy and drama very well. It’s not the top of the line genre-playing it could have been, like a Shaun of the Dead, but it is a perfectly pleasant time in the theater.