It’s so hard to make horror and comedy work together — especially in a meta context — but The Final Girls does it very well for a good chunk of its running time. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas) opens his witty little film with a trailer that most horror fans should be familiar with, even if it’s for a fictional movie: a scratchy, grainy teaser for Camp Bloodbath, the king of all slasher flicks, featuring “Billy,” a masked Jason-like figure chasing a bunch of young things through the grounds of a summer camp. Pull away and we see that the trailer is being watched on an iPhone by Max (Taissa Farmiga), daughter of Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), one of the stars of Camp Bloodbath who has struggled in her career ever since.
Nonetheless, mother and daughter share a loving relationship that’s shattered by a car crash that leaves Amanda dead and Max still unable to come to terms with it three years later. Her emotional state is not helped when her geeked-out projectionist friend Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) begs her to show up at a local revival of Camp Bloodbath. Devoted pal Gertie (Alia Shawkat), mean girl Vicki (Nina Dobrev) and potential boyfriend Chris (Alexander Ludwig) in tow, she reluctantly shows up, but a series of bizarre events find Max and friends transported into the actual movie — where they meet up with the characters, including the one played by Amanda, and realize that they may be fodder for Billy’s machete as well if they don’t find a way out.
Just as other post-modern horror satires like Scream have done in the past, Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller get a lot of mileage out of playing with the narrative and visual tropes of the well-worn slasher genre. Since Amanda’s character, Nancy, loses her virginity in the film, that automatically condemns her to a gruesome sex-equals-death fate; Max, not wanting to lose her mom again even if she’s just a character in a movie, makes sure to keep Nancy away from would-be stud Kurt (Adam DeVine doing his best Jack Black impression). When the kids lay a trap for Billy, they have requisite camp slut Tina (Angela Trimbur) do a striptease, which draws the killer out of the fog-shrouded woods right on cue. And the loss of the film’s original “final girl” — the remaining virgin who slays the monster — means that a new one has to step up for the climactic confrontation.
The Final Girls is clearly an affectionate nod toward those ‘80s slasher flicks, right down to the use of slo-mo for heightened suspense (which our heroes find themselves moving in as well) or the way that the screen begins to turn to black-and-white whenever a flashback to Billy’s origin story is called for. But what makes the movie work is that the affection is extended to the characters, most importantly Max and Amanda/Nancy. Farmiga and Akerman are both terrific and Farmiga’s mix of grief and joy at interacting with some version of her mother again is adeptly portrayed. Akerman’s performance is sensitive as well, giving the movie moments of real poignancy — a rarity in this genre, post-modern or not. There’s also a subtle nod to the power of film itself to preserve and keep in reach our memories of the past, the forgotten and the dead.
Even with its brief, 84-minute running time (sans credits), The Final Girls loses a bit of steam in its last third or so, as the preparations for battle and the rising body count fall into more familiar and less inventive territory. But Strauss-Schulson and the screenwriters still find a way to stage a clever surprise or two, even if the film has a couple of endings too many (and yes, in classic slasher fashion, there is the promise/threat of a sequel, although it’s unclear whether Strauss-Schulson means it or not). But as far as these kinds of cinematic winks go, The Final Girls successfully deconstructs its chosen genre without the cynicism that could render an exercise such as this into simple, unengaging snark, and proves that it’s okay for the filmmakers to like their victims, right down to the final ones.
The Final Girls is out in limited theatrical release and on VOD now.