In 1996 Scream threw the typical horror movie formula on its head with its self-awareness and smart writing. Its satirical wink to all the 70s and 80s’ blood-curdling terror classics made Scream a fresh and fun departure for a genre that had basically dissolved into an endless stream of half-hearted efforts.
Now almost two decades later, The Final Girls is doing it again with a clever plot and a script that wastes no time letting us know that the screenwriters are in on the fun, too.
The fictional Camp Bloodbath arrived in the mid-1980s, and it went on to garner an Evil Dead-like cult following. Starring Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) as the stereotypically-virginal Nancy, the movie followed all the cliches that made films like Halloween so popular. Meanwhile, in the “real world”, Cartwright has been trying unsuccessfully to keep her acting career going, but she still has her priorities in line. As a single mother, she raised her teenage daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga).
When an accidental fire at a screening of Camp Bloodbath forces Max and her friends to escape through a hole they rip in movie screen, the gang finds itself actually inside the movie (within the movie)– picture a reverse Purple Rose of Cairo meets Friday the 13th, and you’re in the ballpark. All of a sudden, Max and her friends are interacting with the characters (including Nancy) and using their knowledge of the Camp Bloodbath’s plot to attempt to outsmart the machete-wielding, Jason-like bad guy.
The Final Girls is stuffed to the gills with inside jokes– including a cast of characters that is in itself an homage to the horror films it’s spoofing. Alongside Max is no-nonsense best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), sensitive hunk Chris (Alexander Ludwig), the intolerable princess Vicki (Nina Dobrev), and the goofball film nerd Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). Each role is perfectly cast, and they all play off each other (and the Camp Bloodbath characters, including Pitch Perfect’s delightfully over-the-top Adam DeVine) with winks and nods galore.
The script by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller starts out with its meta guns blazing. When Max and her friends first land in Camp Bloodbath-ville, they quickly notice that the opening scene keeps re-running every 92 minutes (the run time of the movie), until they decide to insert themselves into the action. And later, they have to physically step over on-screen graphics, and they even go monochromatic as they head back in time during a Camp Bloodbath flashback.
The Final Girls isn’t all fun and games, though, there’s also a surprisingly decent amount of emotion and heart, too, as Max and her unknowing mother re-connect in the middle of the machete madness.
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) keeps the pace moving briskly, and his stylized use of color and saturation bumps the movie up an extra level. It’s obvious that both the movie and the movie-within-the-movie were a hoot to make, and that infectiousness rubs off in the final product.
The Final Girls wanders off-course a bit toward the end, as Strauss-Schulson starts leaving the story behind in favor of special effects and thinking he needs an over-the-top ending. (And no shortage of blame also goes to composer Gregory James Jenkins, for his overly-distracting, synth-heavy score– if it’s a tongue-in-cheek ode to horror movies past, it doesn’t work). The flaws, though, aren’t fatal enough to erase all the cleverness and fun.
Its limited release will deny The Final Girls the same cultural impact Scream enjoyed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not warranted. If you like your horror with a heaping slice of self-aware satire, it’s a cut above the rest.