When I first heard about Todd Strauss-Schulson's The Final Girls, I immediately thought about the book that spawned it's title, Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws. You could say it's academic book that offers a feminist perspective on the oft-maligned horror sub-genre, the slasher film. While her book has been both derided and hailed by film fans, one of the book's universal achievements is the establishment of the Final Girl, the last surviving member, usually a virginal female, of the horny college kids/camp counselors in a slasher film.
Going into Strauss-Schulson's The Final Girls, I assumed the flick would immerse itself in the tropes of the slasher film and that when it hit DVD, it could sit comfortably beside Clover's book on my shelf. I was wrong. But you go into The Final Girls, the way you would go into a silly stoner comedy, you will be better served.
In the film's prologue, we're treated to a trailer for the fictional mid-'80s slasher film Camp Bloodbath. One of the stars of the film is Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) as Nancy. However, Amanda's career doesn't exactly take off after the horror film, for the next scene treats us to an older Amanda in a car singing along to Kim Carne's "Bette Davis Eyes" with her daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga). That moment ends quickly when the car wrecks. Flash-forward a few more years and an orphaned Max is reluctantly attending a screening of Camp Bloodbath with her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and Max's crush, Chris (Alexander Ludwig), all while attempting avoid Chris' current ex, Vicki (Nina Dobrev), and Gertie's Camp Bloodbath-obsessed step brother, Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). Thanks to a domino effect of events, the theater catches on fire. Everyone scrambles to the exit while Max and the others decide to make their own exit by ripping a hole through the movie screen. Before you can utter the words Last Action Hero, the five of them are inside the movie itself. Soon enough, they meet all of the film's characters, including Nancy and the camp's resident slasher, Billy (Dan B. Norris). When they finally grasp what's going on, Max attempts to escape the film's universe while subverting its narrative, particularly the part where Nancy dies after having sex with camp pig, Kurt (Adam Devine).
We're in meta-spoof territory here, folks, a device that has worked well in films like Scream, Cabin in the Woods, Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, and my personal fave, Gremlins 2: The New Batch. As such, one of the film's joys is watching Max's gang attempt to explain the film's universe to the clueless mid-80's counselors. The downside, sometimes The Final Girls was so up it's own meta-ass, much like Human Centipede 3:The Final Sequence, it was irritating. Ultimately, it all worked. Oh, there were minor inconsistencies with regards to slashers and the eras they were aping, but I was OK with chalking that up with my own nerdy tendencies. Picking apart such things is the joyless equivalent to pointing out the unrealistic nature of Wile E. Coyote's ACME inventions. The Final Girls wasn't made to supplement a master class on a film genres; it was made to give the audience a pleasant viewing experience. Strauss-Schulson's previous film A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas was a fun movie too, and I'm sure there were inconsistencies regarding the effects of marijuana on pot smokers, but I didn't let that stop me from laughing.
However, The Final Girls is also a bittersweet tale, with Max's grief at the heart of it. In fact, the best scenes of are of Max and Nancy (her mom in character) together. Thanks to Strauss-Schulson's direction, in the end this goofy movie is about a distraught young woman being given the chance to finally say goodbye to her mom, offering a surprisingly sober view of death within the confines of a genre that rarely ever does.
Honestly, I didn't think I'd ever feel legitimately sentimental, even borderline misty-eyed, while watching teens run from a machete-wielding villain, but thanks to The Final Girls I did.