This past week, I finally found and watched The Final Girls, which I had been dying to see for a while.
Upon locating that last RedBox that was saving a copy of the movie for me, I was ecstatic. I’d really enjoyed the trailer and was intrigued by the official synopsis. I was fairly confident that this film was going to be both a spoof and homage to the slasher genre. In other words, I figured that this movie was going to be another The Cabin in the Woods, or a slasher version of Shaun of the Dead. I don’t think I was wrong to think that, given the clear effort on the part of the film’s marketing campaign. A lot of the early reviews suggested that the film had promise, and so I allowed myself to get hyped.
(Here be spoilers.)
The movie has a fun, intriguing plot: what happened if you got sucked into a slasher movie? That’s just what happens to Max and her friends, Duncan, Gertie, Chris, and Vicki. During a showing of her late mother’s most famous movie, Camp Bloodbath, Max and her friends find themselves inexplicably transported into the world of the movie. Despite their presence, the film progresses as planned, with a masked killer on the loose and camp counselors dropping like flies. Max and the gang try to save the counselors—hippie Mimi, new-wave-obsessed Blake, slutty Tina, dumb jock Kurt, bad-ass Paula, and Amanda, the on-screen alter ego of Max’s mother Nancy. Max and her friends must figure out a way to defeat the killer, escape the movie, and maybe save her mother, who was meant to die a splashy, gory death.
But I’m disappointed to say that this was not the film I wanted it to be. Not even close. It had its good and bad points, but the bad far outweighed the good. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that The Final Girls was the movie it wanted to be.
First, the good.
I really liked the premise. It was an imaginative and novel way for the characters to explore slasher flick tropes. What better way to poke fun at the inherent ridiculousness of slashers than throw a bunch of “normal” characters in with walking, talking slasher stereotypes? A lot of the film’s humor came from such interactions. The dialogue in the slasher is just as bad as you want it to be. Max and her friends regularly hear foreshadowing music and see sepia tones during flashbacks, but the counselors don’t seem to notice. And I loved how Max and her friends figure out that the “movie” repeats every 92 minutes, so that when they mess up their first meeting with the counselors, they just wait a little while and try again.
I also enjoyed the cast, especially how everyone seemed very comfortable with their characters. It’s one of the movie’s strengths. The actors playing the counselors did a great job depicting the flat stock characters of a slasher. I could tell they were all having loads of fun, especially Adam DeVine, from Comedy Central’s Workaholics, who had waaaaay too much fun as jocky counselor Kurt. All of Max’s friends (Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch, Alexander Ludwig, and Nina Dobrev) had distinct personalities and the actors really took advantage of the material they were given. Malin Akerman’s Amanda and Taissa Farmiga’s Max had nice chemistry as mother and daughter, even though I didn’t believe Akerman was old enough to be Taissa’s mother, not by a long shot. It doesn’t matter though, because there were many touching moments between the pair, so it wasn’t too hard to suspend disbelief.
This relationship was meant to anchor the movie and provide an emotional core, which is something new for slashers—typically, these movies don’t really bother with strong character relationships because that’s not what they’re going for. And that’s perfectly fine! I don’t really watch slashers to have my heartstrings pulled. But I appreciated the film’s focus on Amanda/Nancy and Max because it tried raised the stakes and endeavored to elevate the slasher as a genre, in much the same way the friendships in Shaun of the Dead or Zombieland brought depth and nuance to the zombie genre.
Unfortunately, all this good filmmaking wasn’t enough to overcome the script’s flaws.
Notably, the film set up the internal world of Camp Bloodbath as following a certain logical system with particular rules. Since it spoofed summer camp slashers, I expected certain tropes to “set the tone” for the characters’ interactions. Additionally, being inside the fictional world of a movie might present some new physical laws, a kind of general “movie logic”. I liked that The Final Girls tried to address this, but the script failed to fully develop the rules and iron out all the inconsistencies.
For example—Max and her friends figure out that Camp Bloodbath automatically plays on a loop, without their interference. Every 92 minutes, the film restarts. So, once things go wrong, why didn’t they try to wait for the movie to restart and try to get things right? It would have been like a slasher-Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow. Kind of silly, but if handled correctly, it would have been hilarious.
Another example—a major plot point is that virgins can’t die in a slasher, and if you have sex in the movie, you will die. It’s an ironclad rule that the Final Girl will be the only survivor because she is smart, plucky, and resisted sex. And yet Camp Bloodbath’s original final girl, Paula, dies as a virgin. Tina, the slutty counselor, only has to take off her top in order to “summon” the killer. This eventually happens to Nancy, who doesn’t even have to get topless in order to be slaughtered. So…is it sex that gets you killed, or flashing you boobs, or intending to flash your boobs? And let’s not forget how Chris, Max’s romantic interest, doesn’t die. Is the rule then not about a Final Girl but a Final Couple? Confusing. I didn’t really understand why this rule would be violated other than to service the plot, which is really sloppy writing.
Yet another example—once Max assumes her role as Final Girl and kills Billy, she should be able to expect the world of Camp Bloodbath and return to the real world, right? No! Instead, she wakes up in a hospital and figures out that she’s actually in the sequel! What? And not only that, all her friends are in the hospital with her, even though they died! What?! How does this work? If they can all come back in the sequel, what’s the point of a Final Girl? Where are the other characters? How are these worlds connected?
And why is the title of this movie The Final Girls, when only one girl survives? I’m not over it.
Whenever something like this happened, the inconsistency distracted me from the movie. I wanted to figure out how the world of the movie worked, since the film talked about it so much. And yet, the film readily sidestepped its own rules when it needed to, because even though there were a lot of good ideas, they could not amount to a good script.
As a viewer, trying to figure out the rational pattern of the movie’s logic undermined the movie’s strengths. The whole thing was a little half-baked. I only make a big deal out of this because the movie made a big deal out of it, spending a lot of time going over rules and scenarios to explain how to defeat the movie.
Another weak part was the character of Billy, the masked killer. Now, when I watch a slasher, a large part is because of the villain. I want to watch a larger-than-life, near-indestructible baddie stalk and murder his victims, only to be taken down in a bloody fight with the spunky and resourceful Final Girl. He has to be ruthless, clever, and brutal. I have to be afraid of him.
Well, I wasn’t afraid of Billy.
Granted, Billy, did kill a few of Camp Bloodbath’s characters. He is responsible for only half of the movie’s total deaths. Everyone else dies from outlandish accidents or his or her own stupidity. As a result, Billy isn’t given a chance to be a badass killing machine. He’s not the clever, inescapable behemoth killer I wanted him to be.
And I haven’t even touched on the film’s awkward pacing, which further undermined Billy as the prototypical villain. When Billy did kill someone, the act itself happened way too quickly, without any of the terrifying tension or the horrific and drawn-out bloodiness, which is why slashers are such satisfying movies. Seriously, there’s one scene where four characters die in the space of maybe forty seconds, and it’s completely underwhelming.
On the other hand, there were times when The Final Girls tried to be funny, but the scenes tended to drag and consequently lose the humor. I’m not sure if the root of the problem was the editing or the way the scene was directed. All I know is that the script did have some pretty funny parts, but the impact was lost on screen.
Which leads me to perhaps the most disappointing part of this movie: the lack of development for the mother-daughter relationship. I really wanted this element to work. How poignant and weird would it be to see your mother killed in a horror movie, preserved for all time? For that to be the only way you can see her? And to suddenly find yourself in her movie? I would imagine you’d act like Max and want to save her, that you might be tempted to upset the order of the movie in order to spare her. But among all the other jumbled pieces of this movie, the parent-child relationship wasn’t executed well. Instead, much of those tender moments were swallowed up by the bad pacing and undermined by how distracted I was by the film’s inconsistencies and stupid kills. It’s such a pity.
All of this is to say that The Final Girls made one fatal error—it forgot to be a slasher flick first and foremost.
It’s a tricky thing to spoof and pay homage to a slasher, but not impossible. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and The Cabin in The Woods successfully made fun of slasher tropes but created an enjoyable slasher at the same time. I think those films succeeded because they used the structure of a slasher as the story’s backbone, and then tweaked a few key elements and patterned the jokes and satire off the existing structure.
For Tucker & Dale, the story progresses like a classic slasher—college kids travel to the woods for a fun and sexy weekend, but things go horribly wrong and people start dying. But instead of following the college kids, the camera follows the would-be hillbilly killers, who aren’t killers at all. By changing the point of view, suddenly the premise is cracked wide open for all sorts of satire. In The Cabin in the Woods, the narrative structure is preserved so that the film’s other plot has room to breathe. The shadowy organization pulling the strings can carry out its human sacrifice while poking fun at how stupid the characters are forced to act, how so much of these slasher tropes are ham-fisted, and how a rigid rules are a matter of literal life and death.
I don’t understand why The Final Girls didn’t try this approach. It seems like a pretty successful formula to steal a proven horror movie narrative and twist little details as you go. Instead of working so hard to shoe-horn in tension, the filmmakers could have taken advantage of the structure and saved their efforts for spoofing the genre and developing the relationship between Amanda and Max, which would have provided a more resonating emotional core, a la Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. The Final Girls, spent too much time on making sure the audience grasped the rules (which then it changed as needed) and didn’t properly pace the killings. If the script had been better modeled off a slasher, which knows how and when to bloody off characters, the tension and apprehension would have been greatly heightened because suddenly there are real stakes. (Let’s be honest, in a normal slasher, the characters are flat and almost interchangeable. We don’t really care about them. But in this movie, they could have changed all of that and subverted the viewer’s expectations.)
While drafting this post, I did a little bit of research on the writers, M.A. (Mark) Fortin and Joshua John Miller. I found out that Joshua John Miller is the son of Jason Miller, who played Father Karras in horror classic The Exorcist. Part of wanting to write The Final Girls was a desire to work through some complex feelings Miller had about watching his father become possessed and die onscreen for eternity. After many tries, the writing team decided to create a story about a parent-child relationship but with the trappings of a slasher. The director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, explained, “The slasher stuff is so fun, but it’s just a way to cloak the central story. It’s such a smart idea. It’s a story about the reverbs of death — the aftermath and the grief — in the middle of a genre that doesn’t take death very seriously. I thought, ‘Now that’s a great idea.’”
It is a great idea. This is the kind of thing that makes horror very useful as a genre—taking painful, real life emotions and wrapping it up in a package that makes it easier to digest. Once that happens, we can make peace with those tough feelings. But it takes more than a great idea to accomplish it. It takes someone who loves the genre, who loves slasher flicks and understands how they work. Maybe Fortin, Miller, and Strauss-Schulson are true fans, but the above quote makes me think maybe they aren’t.
Overall, I’m glad I saw The Final Girls. I just wish they had been more deliberate and critical of the choices they made, at the same time that I wish they’d reveled in the slasher genre. The Final Girls was both too little and too much, and the real payoff was lost in the shuffle.
Movie Rating: RedBox this one if you don’t have a better horror option.