Can Contemporary Teenagers Put An End To 'Final Girls'?
[ Note: We assume you know that movie reviews always discuss the plot of the film to at least some degree, but this is kind of an odd one. It's almost impossible to talk about this film without talking about the premise that develops over the course of the first act, but if you want to check the film out without knowing, come back and read after you've seen it.]
Jean-Luc Godard allegedly once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. He probably didn't expect his words would be taken so literally, or so often, by the blood-and-guts crowd. The Final Girlsis the latest in a line of postmodern horror comedies whose purpose is to rip apart, in bloody fashion, the hoary clichés that helped popularize the genre they're mocking. With slight variation, the fright-night commentary is making the rounds of Ryan Murphy's new TV show Scream Queens, and The Cabin in the Woods before it, and Scream before that, and Young Frankenstein way before that. And on and on. We dismantle so we can rebuild.
But filmmakers wouldn't keep going back to this well if it didn't keep drawing water, and The Final Girls has a bit more going for it than broad parody. It has a unique fixation on that trope name-checked in its title, which this movie's resident film geek (there's always one) helpfully explains to the laypeople. The "final girl" is the last person alive at the end of the horror movie, who is usually a woman, and usually a virgin—because when psycho killers are on the loose, they tend to target the sexually active.
This skewed, repressed idea of what it means to survive colors the film's point of view, as we latch onto the story of Amanda, a struggling actress played by Malin Akerman. The character that made Amanda famous, a counselor in the spot-on terrible '80s slasher pic Camp Bloodbath, decides to lose her virginity and her shirt, and must therefore be murdered. Then, as if to reinforce this cosmic "sex = death" worldview, Amanda herself dies in a car crash in The Final Girls's opening minutes, with her daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga) in the passenger seat.
We are on fertile ground here, the stuff feminist film theory theses are made of. So when, years after Amanda's death, a freak accident at a midnight showing of Camp Bloodbath teleports Max and her friends into the low-budget nightmare itself, there's a certain giddiness. Maybe this time Max's mom can finally survive until the end, or maybe the "final girl" rule is as destructive and unstoppable as the Friday the 13th franchise.
This is a premise that promises a bit more than the film can deliver, as screenwriters M.A. Forton and Joshua John Miller can't decide what the hook should be. Is it that our heroes are trapped in a fictional world with broadly written character types, a not-so Pleasantville? Is it that the 1980s have no use for their 2015 phones and ideas about gender equality? Is it that Max transposes her grief for her dead mother onto this suddenly alive teen-girl stereotype who happens to look like her? Or is it that the kids are doomed to watch an unstoppable force murder everyone for sport, a prospect that has suddenly lost its entertainment value?
Each source of comedy gets its moment to shine—I particularly enjoyed Thomas Middleditch's film geek telling his friends to treat their surroundings like a "wildlife preserve," and the way the modern kids attempt to escape the camp but keep getting sucked in like an infinity-loop of doom. Some all-star comedy ringers (Adam DeVine, Alia Shawkat) make for entertaining victims. But elsewhere lie missed opportunities, like a "flashback" sequence where Max and her buddies just stand around waiting for plot to happen.
Apart from the in-film trailer and some expressive touches in the very cool theater scene, director Todd Strauss-Schulson (of the third Harold and Kumar) doesn't do enough style-wise to place us inside the fake-horror-movie mindset. He favors brightness over shadow, keeps the villain largely at bay, and neutralizes blood and nudity as only a PG-13 rating can. The gender commentary is still on point, and The Final Girlssuccessfully disembowels its target trope. But it works better as film criticism than it does as a film.
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