You’d have thought that after four Scream films and one television series, there wouldn’t be room for any more meta-bait deconstructions of the slasher genre, but the makers of The Final Girls found themselves a way to up the ante. With a structure that borrows liberally from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Final Girls somewhat cleverly draws us inside the fictive world of ‘80s horror, but it fails to say anything new about that era or our continued collective obsession with it.

Max (Taissa Farmiga) lost her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) three years ago in a car accident and still struggles with the loss, failing academically and floundering socially. Their relationship was a close one, but in some ways, Max was the maternal one. Amanda was an unsuccessful actress who seemed emotionally stunted by the short-lived fame that starring in Friday the 13th stand-in Camp Bloodbath afforded her. On the anniversary of her mother’s death, Max is talked into going to a special screening of the film alongside her best friend, Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Gertie’s cinephile step brother (Thomas Middleditch) and Chris (Alexander Ludwig), her tutor/crush. Chris’ ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) tags along for the requisite love triangle drama, and these clearly-defined demographics more than telegraph the direction the plot plans to take.

During an elaborately executed set piece inside the theater (with onscreen moments harmoniously synchronized to congruous actions by members of the audience) a fire breaks out. Using a replica machete from Camp Bloodbath’s Jason knockoff “Billy,” Max cuts the screen open to get herself and her friends out, only to discover (natch) that they’ve magically traveled inside the film itself. Visually, director Todd Strauss-Schulson has a lot of fun with this conceit. He employs special effects reminiscent of College Humor video game parodies to give the world inside the movie an extra-real, 3D-style feel. When an onscreen title or chyron is present, it appears to be a three-dimensional construct that our IRL protagonists can see. They can hear the foreshadowing music cues. When a flashback is about to occur, the sky rains down droplets of black and white before engulfing them in a sea of grayscale. It’s a sharply-executed scheme of world building that is both immersive and charming, but doesn’t quite jibe with the rest of the film’s emotional ambition.

If The Final Girls was principally concerned with skewering the Jason franchise, this would be a troubling starting point, as there’s very little left in 2015 to observe about this particular microgenre. Much of the film’s running time is spent taking broad, unsubtle jabs at a series of films that’s already had its bones picked clean in the ensuing years. The script wants to create a self-satisfied distance between itself and the material it aims to send up, but it just doesn’t have the incisive wit necessary to be above the subject. Given that the movie needs to function as a legitimate thriller alongside its spirited pastiche, the more colorful flights of fancy do little more than undermine any genuine tension or suspense with regards to our heroes’ wellbeing.

The dynamic that saves this flick exists between its women, from the curious relationship between Max and Nancy (the scream queen played by her mother in the film) to the tension between Max and former BFF/current romantic rival Vicki. The cast imbues a life and sense of pathos into these characters that far transcends the rest of the movie’s obsession with exploring tired trope inversions and pop culture crit asides masquerading as plot development. There are some stumbling steps to be sure, particularly in the cheap humor surrounding Tina (Angela Trimbur) as the film-within-a-film’s resident sexpot, but the implication of these persistent cinematic archetypes representing the restrictive boxes we tend to paint around women is laudable, even if much of the headier conclusions that could be drawn are lost in the shuffle.

“Workaholics” vet Adam DeVine steals the entire show, but not in a good way. He reaches Jack Black levels of obnoxious exuberance as Kurt, the singular personification of camp counselor horniness, and if this movie was just Wet Hot American Summer with a serial murderer, his inclusion and copious screen time would be brilliant. As it stands, however, he detracts from the film’s more potent themes as the only legitimately funny presence in a movie more packed with mild grins than belly-quaking guffaws. The film’s score, similarly, is alternately touching and irritating, playing hot and cold between forced parody and tender resonance.

By the film’s bombastic climax, it’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t entirely sure of what they wanted The Final Girls to be. As a cartoonish romp through the world of camp-based slasher flicks, it’s an inoffensive way to spend an hour and a half, but this slavish dedication to playing around with convention ruins the film’s potential as a sharp critique of gender roles in Hollywood, not just horror. It’s not as high-minded an exercise as it purports to be, but The Final Girls wrings enough from its well-worn premise to be thought provoking, if not exactly revelatory.

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