Meta horror is always in vogue. Few if any other genres have the capacity for so much self-reflection and self-deprecation. Horror folds in on itself every few years, acknowledging it’s icons, celebrating them and lambasting its own repetitions. Hell, you could argue it does so like clockwork once a year, with October 31st as it’s accepted pit stop. And there are so many subgenres to choose from, each with their own rules and reference points. As of late the cabin-in-the-woods movie has been the most popular to deconstruct, as evidenced in the likes of Tucker And Dale Vs Evil, Resolution or, well, The Cabin In The Woods. Todd Strauss-Schulson’s film The Final Girls takes on a different but still defiantly 80’s staple; the summer camp slasher flick.
So here we’re looking specifically at the archetypes of Friday The 13th, Sleepaway Camp, The Burning and so forth. In the reality of The Final Girls Max (American Horror Story‘s Taissa Farmiga) is the daughter of fading scream queen Amanda (Malin Akerman). Amanda struggles to fill out her career with the millstone of 1986 ‘classic’ Camp Bloodbath hanging around her neck. However an unexpected car accident kills Amanda, leaving Max grieving three years later. Begrudgingly attending a screening of her mother’s least favourite flick with her friends, a fire in the auditorium forces the bunch to flee by cutting through the cinema screen with a machete. They awake inside the movie; their only hope of survival is to follow its rules and defeat unkillable bad guy Billy (essentially Jason Voorhees in a crappier mask) with his own blade. In addition, Max must reconcile an experience which reunites her with a woman who looks exactly her mother… but isn’t.
Quite how the real-world logic of this works is best left at the door. The Final Girls asks you to take this leap of faith because, hey, it’s fun. This is a brightly coloured openly-campy (if you’ll pardon the pun) movie, designed for enjoyment rather than serious analysis. But, while we’re here, lets just hang a sign on this one that says “masses of fun” and keep going. So it’s Pleasantville fed through a meat-grinder? Well, yeah. But that doesn’t stop The Final Girls from having enough charm up its sleeve, especially for fans of the genre.
Attitudes of the era are taken to task as much as the summer camp slashers. Adam DeVine’s machismo character Kurt represents the misogynistic jock stereotype, undercutting it with a closet-homosexual zest. Yeah, it’s hardly subtle, and it’d certainly be a little too brash if DeVine didn’t manage to charm his way through it in the process, while Angela Trimbur’s Tina is a fun send-up of the promiscuous camp counsellor type who might as well have a sign saying “DOOMED” tacked to her open shirt. Although, in her case, a little goes a long way.
Of the ‘real’ characters, Thomas Middleditch makes the most he can out of Duncan; essentially this film’s Randy (if we’re going with the Scream template), giving us just enough exposition on behalf of screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller in order to get things up and running. While, intentionally or not, Alexander Luwdig nails the boring-square-jawed-male-lead archetype.
The film opens with a trailer for Camp Bloodbath that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in the Grindhouse reel of fakes, but Strauss-Schulson chooses to keep the remainder of the movie looking brightly contemporary, even when we’re plunged into the ‘movie reality’. Perhaps this is for the best (does anyone enjoy fake ‘scratches’ anyway?). This is crisp, light viewing designed for easy enjoyment. It doesn’t quite have the smarts of millennial meta horror benchmark Detention, but it’s game enough to give it a whirl and for the most part is an entertaining success. First and foremost this is a comedy, most effectively when it draws on the talents of Arrested Development alumni Alia Shawkat.
There are nagging inconsistencies – early on we’re led to believe the world of Camp Bloodbath takes place in a 92 minute loop, yet this is almost instantly abandoned – but then, as before, picking apart the mechanics of The Final Girls rather misses the point. At it’s worst, The Final Girls veers close to Scary Movie crappiness when its jokes don’t land, and Strauss-Schulson has a bad habit of trying to spice up his scenes with overly complicated CG-assisted camera moves (The Final Girls doesn’t need to resemble a music video; it has enough decent material to exist without such gimmicks), but largely it carries itself as what it simply intends to be – a hoot and a half, sugary and disposable. The horror equivalent of a raspberry slushy.
There are some pretty neat elements in here, mind. Max’s longing for wish-fulfillment with her mother’s character actually manages to be rather sweet and touching, despite its potential mawkishness. The characters’ exasperation when the movie reality turns slow-motion is a little treat, and the idea of using flashbacks to evade danger is rather fun. As one might expect, this is also a perfect excuse for yet another John Carpenter-aping retro horror soundtrack. At some point this kind of nostalgic audio codification is going to get tiring. Fortunately we’re not there yet.
Overall, despite some glaring flaws and a general sense of disposability, The Final Girls is another welcome addition to meta horror’s all-too-enjoyable canon. True if you’re looking for a really invigorating inversion of the ‘final girl’ routine, you ought to already be aware of Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, but with Halloween on the approach at the time of writing, you could certainly do a lot worse if you’re looking for something new to slip into your yearly marathon on trick or treat night.
Oh, and don’t confuse this with the similarly titled Final Girl starring Abigail Breslin and Wes Bentley which has also debuted on UK streaming sites recently. That movie is awful. This one is not.