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“THE FINAL GIRLS” (Movie Review)

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THE FINAL GIRLS is part of the meta-horror canon, alongside SCREAM, BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL and CABIN IN THE WOODS, in which the characters are hyper-aware of the horror-movie mythology they inhabit and are thus granted the ability to change the very structure of the trope. Not as arch as the aforementioned films, THE FINAL GIRLS (which won the Audience Award at the recent Stanley Film Festival) has a surprisingly affecting emotional core, built on the chemistry between actresses Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman.

Max (Farmiga, from two seasons of AMERICAN HORROR STORY) is known by her peers in school to be part of a scream queen dynasty, due to the appearance by her late mother (Akerman) in the ’80s slasher flick CAMP BLOODBATH. One of her friends, Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), begs Max to attend his screening of the movie as guest of honor; she finally agrees, begrudgingly. During the projection, a fire starts and she and her group of friends rush toward the screen, only to leave their reality and become trapped in world of CAMP BLOODBATH itself. The narrative then follows their misadventures as they try to escape the film-within-a-film, dealing with its characters while being stalked by a brutal killer.

Max et al. are not only trapped in the movie’s world but also within its constructs, figuring out how to trigger black-and-white flashbacks and stumbling over the diegetic reality of title sequences, the names and words of which become physical objects appearing in the characters’ paths. In most films in which characters enter a piece of cinema—i.e. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT and Toontown—the characters don’t have to confront the existential presence of editing, typography and the fact that the films they’re in must end. In THE FINAL GIRLS, if the youths don’t take the right steps to complete the story and attain their goal, the whole thing starts over again, looping and looping until they figure out what they need to do to move the plot forward, applying the logic of Harold Ramis’ GROUNDHOG DAY to this cinematic trap. (A key precendent to this idea in the horror genre is the repeating sequence in Renny Harlin’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, which also features a scene in which a character falls into a movie screen and enters its reality.)

As a slasher movie spawns sequels, the repetitiveness of its plot expands outward; the killer seemingly dies at the end of any given installment, and then is resurrected (or given a nearly identical replacement) in the next one, the subgenre itself essentially follows a looping structure. FINAL GIRLS uses the repetitive nature of these movies as an actual plot point. Just as actresses have rebelled against becoming trapped in the typecasting of slasher-film final girls, Max becomes aware of her genre’s formula and, while attempting to transcend it, also reinforces it.

THE FINAL GIRLS is able to maintain both its horror and comedy aspects while also being quite moving. Max has to deal with mourning the past while showing great courage and the ingenuity to persevere through present dangers. From the very beginning, the film elicits the emotional core and bonding between mother and daughter directly before tragedy strikes. The film also addresses the cruelest form of wish-fulfillment, the lost, grieved-over loved one resurrected—only for that person to inevitably become lost and grieved over again. It’s thematically relevant to the repetitive nature of grieving, being trapped in the past with a sometimes constructed (via unreliable, idealized or even inaccurate memories) quasi-fictionalized person you once loved. Max needs to learn to move beyond grief, to return to the land of the living from the flat world of the screen (and dreams and memories), to break out of grief’s obsessive cyclical re-experiencing of death and loss and to move forward through time.

The one issue with THE FINAL GIRLS is with the slasher himself. He’s not well-designed; his mask is tone-deaf to the iconic qualities of an ’80s killer. Something a little more sleek, a little more simple, instead of a giant wooden tiki mask on some guy, would have created a stronger look and silhouette. Others have criticized the film’s lack of focus on authentic recreation of vintage slasher-movie detail, but to this writer’s mind, FINAL GIRL is not intended to be a pure recreation, but an exploration of genre structure, film grammar and personal loss. Its strongest elements are the explorations of Max’s mourning and how she evolves and attempts to find peace within, while fighting to survive in a chaotic, dangerous world.

Joshua John Miller, who scripted THE FINAL GIRLS with M.A. Fortin, has a strong genre pedigree: The son of THE EXORCIST’s Jason Miller, he played the kid vampire Homer in Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK and Tom Atkins’ son in HALLOWEEN III. Together with director Todd Strauss-Schulson (making quite a left turn from A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS), they have created a most entertaining film (which also played SXSW earlier this year, and is set for release this fall by Sony Pictures) that applies genre savvy and inventiveness at the service of a unexpectedly resonant story.

3.5_skull

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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