With meta-horror, the roots go deep into the bloodline of the genre. While SCREAM is often given the sole credit of inventing the element of self-referential comedic horror that borders on parody, the honor actually belongs to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, an endearing classic in its own right. Other pre-Scream meta included WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, WAXWORK, FRIGHT NIGHT and the criminally underrated, POPCORN. While Scream deserves its place in history for reviving the genre when it was fading into direct-to-video “z” grade fodder, it ironically became another reductive horror franchise by the time it reached the second sequel. Over a decade later, when SCREAM 4 was released (arguably the only sequel that the franchise needed) audiences weren’t so receptive. The world had changed. So it made sense when viewers were quick to instead praise gonzo-horror CABIN IN THE WOODS. Whedon’s clever, yet heavily smarmy and condescending commentary on the current state of horror, had the same sense of ironic-nostalgia and bitter cynicism the youth of America had possessed. Now, with Todd Strauss-Schulson’s sure-to-be-cult classic, THE FINAL GIRLS, the sub-genre not only has a new classic to champion, but possibly the most original and heartfelt one in nearly a decade.
Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) are leaving another audition that her mother has most likely lost. It’s implied that she rarely gets any serious parts due to her role in a FRIDAY THE 13th-esque slasher called CAMP BLOODBATH. In a touching and pivotal opening sequence that involves Kim Carnes’ “Bettie Davis Eyes”, a horrid car accident claims the life of her mother. A few years later, when she reluctantly agrees to attend an anniversary screening of Bloodbath in her mother’s honor, Max and her friends are transferred into the movie. In order to survive, they must abide by the rules of the slasher film, but the experience also provides her with the opportunity to see her mother again, even if it technically isn’t her. For Max it’s a bitter-sweet experience and she’ll do everything in her power to make sure her mother survives the film along with them.
This is just a taste of the clever emotional undercurrent that writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller have woven throughout the film. The delicate relationship between Max’s grief to the legacy of her mother and the character played by her mother is handled with such delicate precision that it’s physically tangible. You never forget that the two aren’t actually related, both actresses embodying their roles with a quiet sentimentality that tugs at your heart-strings. Farmiga’s teary-eyed gaze has never felt more honest, nor has the fragile manner in which she normally portrays her roles. Malin Akerman is quite possibly one of the greatest unsung actresses in Hollywood today. I rarely suggest somebody be nominated for an Oscar, but it’s a shame that the Academy doesn’t recognize horror films because Akerman definitely deserves one here. She’s charmingly sincere, terrified, naive and perfect in every moment.
However, it extends beyond the two main roles. Initially, every character (including the ones in the ‘film within a film’) are playfully cliche. Yet, through the brilliant character arcs and nuanced depth that Fortin and Miller have given them, they transcend their cartoonish visages and all have their moments of true endearment. Where some films will clearly depict their cliched tropes and do nothing to challenge them, you don’t often see a collective of characters that each have a charm all their own. Angela Trimbur (my favorite thing from Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN II) absolutely kills it in some of funniest moments and could easily carry a comedy or horror on her own. The same sentiment goes for the always-amazing Alia Shawkat and Adam DeVine.
Todd Strauss-Schulson’s direction is refreshing and set’s up some amazing sequences that we haven’t seen in any films before. There’s a scene where a few characters are consciously stuck in an obligatory “slow motion sequence” that had me grinning from ear to ear because it was such a rad moment that really shows off his innovation behind the camera. Too elaborate of cinematography, under the guise of a less-capable director, could have easily ended up looking like a big mess that was trying far too hard. Schulson pulls it off like a seasoned pro. I’m interested in seeing where his visual style will go from here and will go as far to say that he has the same playfulness to his film making that you normally only see in Edgar Wright’s work.
The Final Girls isn’t a straight up horror like Scream, nor does it have the underlying cynicism towards horror that Cabin had. It’s a completely unique tone all it’s own. We haven’t had a horror-comedy balance the humanistic aspect of dealing with loss quite as profoundly as this. Movies have been so god damn nihilistic in the last few years and, while that has its due place in horror, it’s nice to have a film that captures the fun of a horror film again and at the same time, leave you with a warmness in your heart. Now, just like any camp slasher movie will do, I ask you to heed my warning. If you have any kind of soul, it will be impossible for you to ever hear Bette Davis Eyes again without tearing up.