‘The Final Girls’ Does Horror Right By Going For The Heartstrings

The Final Girls is a film whose depth reinforces its wit, a clever movie that rises above the now-common device of calling out horror clichés thanks to the deep emotional connection portrayed by Max (Taissa Farmiga) toward her mother, Amanda (Malin Akerman). To get to this place, director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller fracture Max’s spirit in the opening moments thanks to a car crash and the guilt that rests on the young woman’s shoulders due to a simple slip of the finger.

Moving the story forward three years reveals a somewhat withdrawn (she’s a bit shruggy, not a curly-fingernailed recluse) 20-year-old woman who misses her B-movie star mother but who is slowly moving her way through a normal life as a student with the help of her sympathetic best friend, Gertie (Alia Shawkat). There’s also the prospect of romance with Chris (Alexander Ludwig), a classic horror movie hunk with a lingering ex-love named Vicki (Nina Dobrev) who used to be Max’s friend before the death of her mom. The only remaining horror movie staple is the comic relief and that responsibility falls to Duncan (Thomas Middleditch from Silicon Valley), Gertie’s annoyingly enthusiastic stepbrother. Duncan is obsessed with Camp Bloodbath, the cult slasher film in which Amanda starred (a role that kept her from getting more work in her career), and desperately wants Max to do a Q&A at a local movie theater on the third anniversary of her mother’s death. Convinced by Duncan’s willingness to do her homework, Max agrees, setting in motion events that lead to her and her friends entering the world of Camp Bloodbath where the cast swells to include camp counselors Kurt (Adam Devine), Tina (Angela Trimbur), Blake (Tory N. Thompson), Paula (Chloe Bridges), Max’s mother (or, at least, the character that she played in the film), and the forgettable composite ’80s horror film slasher that is trying to kill them all.
The Final Girls most resembles the 1993 Arnold Schwarzenegger action-comedy, Last Action Hero, which also features a character that steps inside a genre film. But where that movie pulls most of its punches, wrapping a standard action movie with a few self-aware tropes and purposely lame quips, The Final Girls has a bit more edge. It wants to toe the line between being affectionate and critical of the horror genre. The staples are there — the blood, guts and mayhem, a brewing love story, pained sacrifices, unwilling heroes and intricate plans that don’t come to be — but the filmmakers also heighten certain personalities to poke holes in the archetypes. That’s why Tina, a dim and randy character, comes off like a rabid animal when she finds a stash of uppers. Her friends bind her hands and cover them with mittens so that she can’t molest anyone or herself. Later, her breasts are used as bait for a trap to attract a killer who (of course) only seems to come out when young people are having sex. And it’s why Adam Devine’s supercharged perv character is allowed to carry on and on about sex and his fitness prowess well beyond the point of ridiculousness.

Most important, however, is the relationship between Max and her mom. Through Max’s grief and her determination to let her mother be the “Final Girl” who survives the last showdown with the slasher, we are allowed to feel for someone in a horror film for reasons beyond our innate desire to root for damsels and do-gooders as they flee swinging axes and revved chainsaws. That emotional connection established between Max and Amanda will resonate with anyone who’s lost a parent or lost touch with one, and it speaks to a deficiency within ’80s slasher films, because do we ever really feel a connection for the many victims in those films, or are they just machete fodder? To some, that may not matter, but after years of reboots that suffer from middling attempts to preserve the soul of the slasher genre, it’s nice to see a horror film that can operate within the genre’s conventional boundaries while creating a unique and funny variation on the expected.

Final Girls is available now via streaming services and on Blu-Ray/DVD (via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment).