REVIEW – The Final Girls
Produced by: Michael London, Janice Williams
Written by: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller
Edited by: Debbie Berman
Cinematography by: Elie Smolkin
Music by: Gregory James Jenkins
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Åkerman, Adam DeVine, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch, Nina Dobrev, Alexander Ludwig, Angela Trimbur, Tory N. Thompson, Chloe Bridges, Daniel Norris
It’s almost a cliché by now that horror films will inevitably mock themselves, if not outright be more mock than shock. (That was terribly trite, I know, as is mocking your own writing, but, whatever – I’m keeping it.) Thanks in large part to Scream (and, yes, to a lesser extent, fellow Wes Craven film predecessor New Nightmare), the genre, more than almost any other, has become somewhat replete with meta-commentary about horror film structure and clichés, and so it takes something pretty special to make that whole shtick interesting again. The Final Girls, with its meta-to-the-nth-degree title, is one of those special films that rises above the pack because it brings something new to the table: sincerity. Where most other films seem content to take the cerebral route, horror comedy The Final Girls takes the emotional route and presents a story with a surprising amount of heart and emotion – one that’s also, more importantly, surprisingly effective.
We think we know where the film’s going at the beginning as the movie builds itself off the horror movies the characters are all too familiar with, the same as most other meta-horror films. In this case, it’s centered around a Friday the 13th-esque slasher film called Camp Bloodbath, which features the very Jason Voorhees-esque Billy Murphy killing off promiscuous camp counselors, only to himself be killed in the climax by the film’s virgin final girl. Amanda Cartwright was one of the actresses in the film, whose character, Nancy, starts off a pure virgin and is killed off midway through after having sex with the film’s bad boy, Kurt. Years after the film’s release, however, Amanda is now a single mother to teenager Max and finding it harder to get work and escape her scream queen past as the now iconic Nancy. Unfortunately, however, Amanda herself is unexpectedly killed in a car crash, leaving Max to struggle put her own life back together and move on without a mother to guide her. Another three years go by, and on the third anniversary of her mother’s death, Max is talked into attending a screening of Camp Bloodbath in celebration of her mother. Tragedy again rears its head in Max’s life, however, as a sudden fire sends the theatregoers scrambling for any exit they can, just before Nancy’s defining scene. Cutting through the screen to escape the blaze, Max and her friends instead find themselves somehow trapped inside the movie itself. But while everyone’s focused on surviving Billy Murphy’s wrath, Max becomes preoccupied with the possibility of saving Nancy, the young counselor who bears more than a striking resemblance to her mother, from her scripted fate and bring her into the real world – effectively resurrecting her mother, in a way.
While The Final Girls is ultimately a comedy – and it is plenty humorous and entertaining – I will admit that a lot of the humor and premise are a touch too derivative to call the film a laugh riot, let alone completely original in its material. That’s okay, though, as the film has other traits that set it apart from the rest of the Scream wannabes. Strong performances and smart characterization, for example, keep it from being swallowed up by its mild efforts to examine the archetypical roles within a horror film, even down to the supporting characters –the bickering siblings, the love interest, and the “mean girl,” in particular, who used to be the lead’s best friend –getting more fleshed out and humanized portrayals. However, it’s The Final Girls’ screenwriter Joshua John Miller’s closeness to the parent-child story that lends the film its unusually heartfelt qualities, making it much more than just another fun but passing dissection of horror film tropes.
Joshua, apart from being recognizable for his various roles as a child actor in the 80s and early 90s, happens to be the son of actor Jason Miller, who you might remember played Father Karras in The Exorcist. As a result, he knows the strangeness of growing up with a parent whose on-screen death in a famous horror film has itself become iconic. This portrayal became all the more personal for him when Jason Miller succumbed to a heart attack in 2001. As a result, The Final Girls was an incredibly personal project for the filmmaker, and the interactions between Max and Nancy reflect Joshua’s own feelings when watching his late father’s performances, particularly I the role that turned out to be the most widely recognized. However, despite the fantastical elements in the film and the famous parent aspect of both the reality and fiction behind it, the portrayal of grief and reconciliation with the loss of a loved one – perhaps someone that many believe they knew, but never as intimately as you did – still feels both genuine and universally true.
Taissa Farmiga and Malin Åkerman undoubtedly keys to much of this working as well as it does, however. Farmiga plays Max as believably damaged. She is not incapable of happiness and is obviously attempting to regain a semblance of normalcy and progress in her life, but she’s undoubtedly feeling incomplete and, when confronted with the possibility of rescuing Nancy, however absurd it may seem, you join her in hanging on to that sliver of hope that it may be possible. Åkerman, meanwhile, lends both Nancy and Amanda immense warmth. Amanda’s an imperfect person, a romantic idealist who can’t even pay her bills, but she adores her daughter and exudes a tremendous amount of untapped charm that should’ve served her well in an acting career, something that only Max seems to see. Those qualities are present in Nancy, too, who at first seems like a ditzy blonde too willing to let go of her virginity – because that’s how the filmmakers expected her character to behave, but in the presence of Max, she reveals that she, too, has desires and dreams that go beyond those superficial qualities that made her and her real life counterpart so popular and yet so misunderstood. You can’t help but fall in love with both and see only what Max sees in them.
As a comedy, I still have to admit that The Final Girls could have been more original (and perhaps even plentiful) in its humor. However, the unexpected and surprisingly poignant emotional core of its story and the care put into the portrayals of its characters ultimately makes up for this comparatively minor shortcoming and gives the film the unique quality it needs to set itself apart. Never before has a horror comedy left me feeling so genuinely warmed by the time the credits came on, let alone the fact that it’s left me shedding the weirdest tears both times I’ve seen it. (You’ll never be able to hear Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” again without thinking of this film, I assure you.) The Final Girls is a welcome warm embrace to throw into your horror movie lineup and deserves, at the very least, a spot on your list of underappreciated future cult classics.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5