Eli Roth made two of the best movies of the year with The Green Inferno and Knock Knock, and aside from their satirical pleasures and crackerjack filmmaking the double feature offered terror that wasn’t grounded in ghosts. My preferred horror is caused by people, not spirits, and after the box office failure of Roth’s Hostel 2 and the success of the lame Paranormal Activity the scales have unfortunately balanced in the ghosts’ favor. It’s too early to see if Roth’s great twofer will cause a renaissance, but Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls honors the reign of movies that dominated the 80s and influenced Roth.
I gulped in dread during the opening of The Final Girls. Yes, there was a tribute to the low-res company logo of Vestron Video, but Schulson stages parody footage of 80s Slasher movies, specifically the invented Camp Bloodbath. It’s all there: horny girls shouting “woo” before getting dispatched by this movie’s campfire killer Billy Murphy, along with cheeky taglines (“Kum-bay-nooooo!”) all underneath fake “Grindhouse” print scratches which look totally false against digital videography. I thought we were in the realm of Robert Rodriguez’s blind homage trips or the smug genre disgrace Cabin In The Woods.
Then the film got substantially better. Max (Taissa Farmiga from American Horror Story, younger sister of Vera) is still grieving over the loss of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) in a car crash three years before. See, Amanda played Nancy the fresh-faced, virginal “good girl” in Camp Bloodbath, and now a fanatic of the series, self-professed “Bathematician” Duncan (Thomas Middleditch, sublime on Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley) asks her to attend a screening of the first Bloodbath. She reluctanctly agrees to go, along with her friends (including Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev) but after a fire in the theater the leads escape through a hole in the screen, effectively landing inside the movie.
It’s like Last Action Hero or Pleasantville with Jason Voorhees. Every 92 minutes—the perfect length of an old Slasher—the action restarts in a loop, and Schulson finds inventive ways to enforce the logic of being lodged in a movie: if Max and her friends run away they immediately return to the action, and when Nancy delivers a monologue about Billy’s origin the room liquefies into a portal opening into the fifties. One particularly resonant image has Max looking up at the evening sky where the end credits of Camp Bloodbath run like programmed clouds.
What’s missing is the forbidden sleaze of these movies, the gratuitous nudity and piquant gore. The Final Girls is PG-13 so we’re not in the truly evil realm of Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator, which is ingeniously vile. But this movie has other offerings. The dynamic between Max and her non-mother is moving and suggests that the relationship between movies and real life has a membrane that begs to be torn down and can even reunite the living and the dead.
It also genuinely reveres Slashers and sees their usual motley of regularly assorted characters as pop archetypes. (Comedy Central star Adam Devine is funny as the horny bro, better here than he was fist-pounding De Niro in Nancy Meyers’ The Intern.) And Farmiga gets the line—“You fucked with the wrong virgin”—that has been on the lips of every actual “Final Girl” in underground film history.
The gimmick of being transported to your favorite movie is an engaging metaphor for obsessive fandom. It isn’t as purely enjoyable as Schulson’s Harold And Kumar sequel, and has the residue of On Demand disposability, but The Final Girls is unexpectedly soulful and in the last third photographed like the American slasher giallo that never was.
This movie got me reflecting on my lifelong relationship with Slasher movies. I would have been a Billy Murphy fan. As a child I imagined the Jason series as a utopia of overflowing female nudity and cherry-red blood. Rewatching the 4th Friday The 13th chapter I was startled by the waste of human life and the time it built up characters (like Crispin Glover’s Jimbo) only to furiously end them and never mention their arcs again. The Final Girls isn’t a real Slasher but it refreshingly meditates on the off-screen history of these movies, the quotidian post-shoot lives of the actors and the magic the idea of Slashers holds for young viewers. That magic doesn’t burn as bright for me anymore (the Roth films offer more riches than mere gorehound-pleasing) but The Final Girls brought some of it back with new dimensions.