The Final Girls
Horror comedies have become a thing ever since "Scream" firmly skewered the scary movie genre in the '90s. From the sly and witty "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" to the recent vampire mockumentary "What We Do in the Shadows," comedies that spin horror tropes on their heads can be comic gems.
This is no more apparent than in the brilliant new treat, "The Final Girls." With an all-star cast of familiar faces, a sharp and oddly emotional script by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, and zippy direction by Todd Strauss-Schulson, this could go down as one of the best twists to the genre since "Scream" itself. And it is, hands down, one of my favorite movies of the year.
The film stars Taissa Farmiga ("American Horror Story") as Max, a teenage girl with a loving, but struggling mother (Malin Ackerman) who is still trying to be a movie star. In fact, her biggest claim to fame was the '80s cult slasher flick "Camp Bloodbath." But she hopes to do more, and after a particularly rough audition she throws caution to the wind and she and her daughter head to their favorite haunt, Mel's Diner. But tragedy strikes, and mom is killed.
Cut to three years later. Max still grieves for the loss of her mother and is fairly disaffected at school. She hangs out with her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and Chris (Alexander Ludwig), the school hunk who takes a liking to her. But as Max struggles with school, Gertie's step-brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) asks if she will make an appearance at a double-feature he's set up of "Camp Bloodbath" and its sequel. After some arm-twisting she agrees, and on that night another tragedy occurs. Just as her mother's character is about to get slaughtered, the theatre goes up in flames.
That tragedy causes the four main characters to wake up in a forest in the middle of the day. They are joined by Vicki (Nina Dobrev) an ex-friend of Max's and the school bitch. Before you can say "ch-ch-ch-ha-ha-ha" they are confronted by a van carrying a slutty camp counselor named Tina (Angela Trimbur) and the tacky over-sexed "jock" Kurt (Adam Devine) who ask if they know the way to the camp. This might seem fairly okay, but Tina and Kurt are actually characters in "Camp Bloodbath" which is when our heroes realize they've entered the film itself. This thrills "Camp Bloodbath" super-fan Duncan, but the others aren't quite as enthusiastic. After running into the van every 92 minutes (the length of the movie as if it's on repeat), they decide to join the counselors and head to Camp Bluefinch. Which is where Max runs into her mother - but as the character she plays in the film.
From there the crew have to figure out how to get out of the film and how to navigate the bloodbath that is about to occur. And that is the absolute joy and fun of this film. Not only is every trope of an '80s slasher movie skewered, but devices of filmmaking itself are played for laughs. And none of it is cheap either. This is an incredibly smart and perceptive script that has the ability to comment on its subject, but also do it in a consistently hilarious way. This is one of those movies where you anticipate what the characters will say next, and with a superb cast such as this one, that just makes the film that much more of a delight.
Farmiga as our heroine goes through her paces here having to play a variety of emotions and arcs all at once. She doesn't just have to realize her strength; she has to come to terms with a mother that - in the real world - isn't alive anymore. There isn't a false beat here, and we willingly go with her on the journey. It's a credit to her and Ackerman as her mother/new best friend that the two establish such a connection that this is one of the first slasher movies that could possibly make you cry. The two have an Act 3 sequence that is sensitive and brutal and will break your heart. It's a stunning scene and harder to pull off than it looks.
Middleditch as the meta-horror guy with all the answers is a comic genius with epic timing. Shawkat has the deadpan thing down and has some of the funniest asides of the film. Ludwig is good as the lovelorn jock, and Dobrev nails the bitch role. Devine (currently yucking it up on "Modern Family") is pretty damn hysterical as the movie within a movie's douchey jock with the bad, self-referential one-liners. And special credit has got to go to Trimbur, who plays the over-sexed Tina. She tears into her role like a psychotic chipmunk and her strip-tease scene has got to be seen to be believed.
One of the great things about the script is that the characters might read at first like stock characters - and that's intentional - but they are way more than that. Every character is likeable, and it makes sense why they are together. Ludwig's Chris could have just been the studly jock, but he's not. He's sweet and affable, and doesn't fall into the usual gender roles. Dobrev's Vicki isn't just the bitch, either. And while her arc is probably the most typical, even when she's making amends, it still works because she - like every other actor - isn't just throwing on typical affectations. This might be a comedy but it isn't eye-rolling like "Scream Queens." These characters might be tropes, but they are still well-rounded which is why the final act works so beautifully.
The comedic pleasures here are many and I won't spoil any of them. Just know that Strauss-Schulson and his screenwriters have crafted a cult-classic that should really be seen by everyone who is a fan of horror. It is lovingly made, hilariously entertaining and strangely moving. It's as though everyone involved just wanted to give Jason Voorhees a big hug. And he hugged them back.