Have you ever watched a movie with a certain amount of anxiety because you know that if it’s not any good it will really bum you out? It’s impossible to be a horror fan without seeing some truly awful movies, and usually it’s no big deal. But for some movies, as was the case with The Final Girls, it was really important for me that this movie worked. I liked the premise, and the trailer looked like a hell of a lot of fun. So if it turned out to be a letdown it would have had some extra sting.
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and released in 2015, The Final Girls follows Max Cartwright, a high school senior who loses her mom, Amanda, in a car accident. Before her death, Amanda had been a working actress whose primary claim to fame was her role as Nancy in the 80s slasher flick Camp Bloodbath. When Max is convinced to attend a screening of the movie, a mishap leads to her and a group of friends being sucked into the movie, and in order to survive they need to get to the end of the movie without being slaughtered by the movie's resident masked killer, Billy Murphy.
There were two things that immediately came to mind when I finished watching The Final Girls. The first is that technically, it’s not a horror movie. For me, it played out more like a coming-of-age teen comedy that just so happens to take place in a horror movie setting. The other thing is that, as a horror fan, I absolutely loved this flick.
Whenever someone does any kind of meta or homage take on a horror movie, you always run the risk of them spending too much time on being cute about the source material and not spending enough time on the actual story. This was not the case with The Final Girls. At its core, the story is about Max’s struggle to cope with the loss of her mother and everything else serves to strengthen that story rather than just being clever for the sake of being clever. Take the old “if you have sex in a slasher movie you’re going to die” trope, for example. Screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller don't just use it as a throwaway reference. Max spends a large chunk of the movie trying to keep Nancy from having sex in order to protect her from Billy, who is literally triggered to kill by sex or nudity.
What’s also refreshing about the movie is that virtually everyone gets to be funny. Of course, Thomas Middledich is great as Duncan, the resident movie geek who serves as the gang’s Camp Bloodbath guide. Adam Devine hams it up as Kurt, the obligatory jock asshole stock character. But the movie doesn’t rely on these two to carry the laughs. Everyone is charming and surprisingly layered. Nina Dobrev’s Vicki, for example, could have been a one-note character who simply serves as a wedge between Max and her would-be boyfriend Chris. As the movie progresses, however, we see a sense of self-awareness that makes her pretty damn likeable.
I was also impressed by the cinematography, which was more beautiful than a movie like this had any right to be. The flashback and slow-motion gags made for some very interesting visuals, particularly Billy's flaming leap out of the cabin. The fantastical touches to the sky during the final fight sequence were gorgeous as well.
Needless to say, my anxiety going into The Final Girls proved to be unwarranted. I will warn you that if you’re looking for a blood-filled, R-rated slasher movie, then you won’t find it here. There is very little gore and it’s definitely not about the scares. It is, however, a very smart, funny movie that plays with slasher tropes without ever getting up its own ass. If this turns out to be the last new horror movie I see this year, then I get to end on a very good note.