Written by: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller
Directed by: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, and Adam DeVine
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You just fucked with the wrong virgin!"
A film with a title like The Final Girls doesn’t exactly have to do announce where its heart lies, but it goes out of its way to leave no doubt almost immediately. Audiences are treated to the familiar strains of Harry Manfredini’s “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma” before witnessing the trailer for Camp Bloodbath, which is exactly what you think it is: a summer camp slasher movie that actually looks more or less like it could actually hail straight from 1986. Short shorts, otherwise scantily-clad babes, goofball humor, and one burly maniac collide in a teaser of what could be the best slasher you’ve never seen.
Immediately, it’s clear that The Final Girls comes from a place of reverence for this genre, even if it’s not exactly obvious where it’s going to go. It’s easy to mistake this as the latest exercise in distanced, ironic genre commentary, but Todd Strauss-Schulson’s film is anything but insincere, nor is it even particularly preoccupied with deconstruction. Rather than pick the slasher film apart to examine its corpse, it sees its titular trope as an opportunity to explore an emotionally cathartic journey that isn’t at all typical of this kind of film. For all its apparent familiarity and obviousness, The Final Girls is surprising in its sweetness.
Once The Final Girls properly begins, we learn that the legacy of Camp Bloodbath is a double-edged sword: while it has inspired a fervent fan base decades later, it did no favors for star Amanda Cartwright (Malin Ackerman), who has since been typecast and now struggles to find work. When dies in a tragic car accident, her daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga) is caught in the shadow of her mother’s performance. Some of her friends are Camp Bloodbath devotees and invite her to be a special guest at a special double feature screening (the film inspired a sequel, Cruel Summer, naturally). Max reluctantly attends, and disaster strikes when a fire threatens to consume the entire auditorium; with no other recourse, Max and her friends attempt to escape through the screen, only to inexplicably emerge within the world of Camp Bloodbath itself. Sensing a second chance to reconnect with her mother, Max attempts to thwart the script along with her friends, which proves to be difficult.
After all, slashers tend to be rigid in their formula, something of which The Final Girls is naturally aware. However, the film doesn’t make it a point to comment on or even poke fun at the genre’s repetitive, predictable nature; at most, it has fun pointing out the clichés and conventions in a sort of playful, loving manner. This isn’t a takedown of a beloved genre; hell, it’s barely even cerebral at all, as Strauss-Schulson is more invested in giving weight to the notion of a “Final Girl.” What is typically just an inevitability in most slasher films takes on an immense weight: suddenly, it’s not about whittling the cast down to one default survivor—it’s about a girl possibly saving her mother (or a character played by her mother, at least).
However silly that might sound, it actually works. Max and her friends are something like real-world intruders to this unreal slasher landscape, acting to ground the proceedings against their cartoon counterparts. Compared to the disposable teens of Camp Bloodbath, they’re positively well-rounded, most of them arriving with their own baggage. Even if most of this is composed of teen movie clichés (like jealously and soured friendships), it’s preferable to how many slasher movies are content to skim the surface.
Max and her mother especially provide an emotional backbone that’s highly atypical of slasher movies, which often can’t be any less concerned with that sort of shit. Farmiga and Ackerman are believably close, their turns crucially low-key and natural ; without them, the movie falls apart. Certainly, the big climax—which features a striptease set against an 80s pop anthem—would be laughable instead of oddly affecting. You almost feel compelled to approach The Final Girls on two levels: as weirdly sweet, almost quirky drama and as an actual slasher.
Where it succeeds in the former with memorable characters and witty dialogue, it’s a bit shakier when it comes to the latter. The world of Camp Bloodbath is just a bit too heightened, especially from an aesthetics standpoint. Elie Smolkin’s photography hones in on the neon, candy-colored look the decade, but it’s overlit in a way any competent 80s slasher wouldn’t have been. Between this and some of the more obvious, unsightly CGI, Camp Bloodbath comes off as artificial. When some of the in-movie performances go especially broad, it almost approaches Looney Tunes. And, to be fair, I suppose this is part of the point: the world of Camp Bloodbath is not our own—it’s just that it doesn’t exactly capture that 80s slasher feel, which is kind of surprising since the opening trailer pretty much nails it down.
I also have to address the other elephant in the room, the one that you can’t miss: yes, The Final Girls is a PG-13 slasher, something that’s as surprising as it is disappointing. While you actually don’t miss the gratuitous nudity (the film cleverly doesn’t resort to it as it asks viewers to examine the role of sexuality in slashers), you sometimes find yourself craving the gore. Granted, The Final Girls really stretches the rating (I imagine it’s about as violent as a PG-13 slasher can be), but it’s obvious you’re missing out on what could be a killer slasher movie. There’s a moment when the geekiest devotee of the bunch recounts in detail how the eventual final girl is meant to splatter the psycho’s brains all over the place, and it’s much better than anything that actually happens.
That said, it does deliver everything else you want from a slasher, including a memorable villain in Billy Murphy. Thought to be long dead after a prank gone awry in 1957, he instead returns to stalk and brutally murder anyone who wanders into the camp. An obvious amalgam of Jason and Cropsey, Billy’s a big, burly, indestructible motherfucker with a penchant for sharp objects. In the absence of an actual Friday the 13th movie in during the past 7 (!) years, he makes a decent substitute for Jason, at least so far as hero slashers go. The PG-13 rating may preclude him from dishing out the sort of ultra-gory punishment it doesn’t mean he can’t absorb a ton in his own right, so there are some wonderfully staged sequences that allow you to see how Billy Murphy became a cult icon in this alternate, presumably Jason-less universe.
Admittedly, moments like that make you wish you could just watch Camp Bloodbath in all its uncut glory, sort of like how you catch yourself wishing you could actually watch the movie in Demons. It’s a testament to the richness of the world created here, but it’s a further testament to everyone involved that you don’t get stuck on that notion. Sure, you’d like for The Final Girls to deliver all of the slasher goods, but how often do we exalt slashers for compensating for their character and plot deficiencies with buckets of blood and dismemberments? In many ways, this is a slasher in reverse, where the fantastic character work and emotional core make up for the lack of gore. That’s refreshing in its own right.
Besides that, The Final Girls also has style to burn. Getting hung up on the relative lack of bloodshed is hard to do when the film moves with such a propulsive verve. Smolkin’s camerawork often dazzles as it captures exciting, kinetic sequences that smooth over any perceived deficiencies. The Final Girls is a movie that pulses with both energy and heart, and nothing captures that more elegantly than the aforementioned striptease, the second of two such scenes. Where the first one plays to party movie expectations, the second one carries an undercurrent of grief and reconciliation; all of the film’s thematic preoccupations—the Final Girl trope and cult audiences’ attachment to such characters—coalesce here under a lightning-tinged sky.
So many of the elements here seem familiar but are made new again, including the obligatory sequel tease. Even this somehow is revitalized in this context, as Max’s embracement of her Final Girl status feels righteous. How great is it that we have a slasher that allows us to feel that empowerment? Who needs gallons of blood when you have a big, beating heart?
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