Growing up in the 1980s was a very fun time for horror fans like myself. Although my parents were vigilant about what kind of horror movies I was able to watch, my dad (with my mom’s consent) got my love for all things horror started with viewings of the network television versions of John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Fog (the latter of which we still love to this day). Eventually, I’d branch out and see the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street movies on my own; being a preteenager, those movies worked their scary magic on me, even if I started to see patterns emerging from movie to movie and conventions becoming an establishment unto themselves.
Those patterns and conventions would eventually be parodied and exploited in numerous films of that era such as Student Bodies, The Slumber Party Massacre, and, in more recent times, the Scream tetralogy and the Scary Movie series of spoof films which followed. None of them, to my knowledge, have ever taken the completely meta route that The Final Girls takes, where modern-day kids get trapped in an ‘80s-style summer camp slasher film.
It’s the ultimate take on the audience finally getting to talk back to the screen and having the characters listen for a change. To those of you saying, “Well, they did it in Last Action Hero,” I promise you, this goes way beyond the shortsightedness of that film and moves into more cerebral territory. Writers Joshua John Miller (himself an actor who appeared as a child in Halloween III: Season of the Witch) and M.A. Fortin bring a surprising depth to their script, which can only be called a glorious love letter to the genre, and the term “love letter” couldn’t be more accurate. Few films like this contain such a thorough analysis and deconstruction of the genre without going into silly parody, with just enough seriousness to balance out its exaggerations. Even some of the character names are lifted straight out of these films The Final Girls so very much wraps its arms around.
The Final Girls puts not just a Wes Craven-esque spin on summer camp horror, but also successfully captures the emotions we as an audience feel watching these movies. From the awkward “should we just stand by and watch this?” misgivings to the catharsis we have at a horror movie’s end, director Todd Strauss-Schulson nails every possible detail and feeling from the receiving end of what’s on screen. Magically plucking a few audience members from a celebratory showing of a film called Camp Bloodbath and throwing them into it may be an easy thing to do, but he doesn’t just let the movie roll, nor does the script do it wantonly.
Instead, we’re watching Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga) and her four friends connect and interact with a group of cinematic summer camp counselors, one of whom is played by her own mother, scream queen Amanda Cartwright (Malin Åkerman). However, as they’re in the world of Camp Bloodbath, Max isn’t interacting with her mother – she’s interacting with Nancy, the character she plays. Nancy doesn’t know anything outside of what her character has had written for her; thus, she doesn’t know of Amanda’s death in a horrific car accident three years prior, leaving Max behind and alone.
There’s a constant blurring between Max’s reality and the film’s reality, thus discombobulating her judgment as to who she’s talking to – is it her mother, or is it her character? Reality is toyed with constantly when Max and her friends get into Camp Bloodbath; the linchpin motif is that they have to follow the film’s continuity. The manner in which the scenes that demonstrate this rule are presented are nothing short of genius, thanks to cinematographer Elie Smolkin and editor Debbie Berman. It speaks volumes that I’m almost refusing to give you any examples, save one: the first taste of this involves Max and her friends waiting on the side of the road for 92 minutes, and the time of day doesn’t change. If you can understand that bit of vagueness, then you’ll absolutely love the choices this film makes. Another noteworthy choice is a distinct lack of gore, as this film is rated PG-13; the plot and action move so quickly you won’t even notice it’s missing.
All of the ‘80s horror cinema tropes are covered. The connection between sex and death (which was never better exemplified than by Friday the 13th Part 2’s double impalement), nudity in horror movies (one of Camp Bloodbath’s counselors, played by Angela Trimbur, is humorously written solely for this purpose), the lack of minorities being dealt with by having the “token black guy” (Tory N. Thompson), and that one oversexed guy who nails everything with a heartbeat (the always over-the-top Adam DeVine) – they’re all wonderfully exaggerated versions of their ‘80s inspirations.
… But what happens when they meet their late ‘90s/’00s counterparts, most of whom almost have been ported right out of the brilliant film The Cabin in the Woods? The jock (Alexander Ludwig), the nerd (Thomas Middleditch), the moral conscience (Alia Shawkat), the brat (Nina Dobrev), and the virginal female (Farmiga) – half the fun of the movie is watching all of them mix up their sensibilities and smarts, and each actor dives into their respective roles with enough unbridled aplomb or wary confusion that helps this film from slipping into Jason Friedburg/Aaron Seltzer territory.
The Final Girls is a wonderful, masterful meditation on the ins and outs of a bygone era. It’s at once an homage to and a resurrection of those wonderful movies we watched on Cinemax when our parents weren’t looking. Speaking of parents, as The Final Girls is a love letter to ‘80s horror films, this review is likewise dedicated to my parents, Rey and Tessie. Thanks for letting me watch those movies through my fingers when I was a kid – without those seminal viewings, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate films like these and The Final Girls as much as I do.