Note: This review was originally published back in March 2015 as part of our coverage for the SXSW Film Festival.
Max (Taissa Farmiga) just can’t live Camp Bloodbath down. In the ‘80s, Max’s mother Nancy (Malin Akerman) starred in that film, a summer camp slasher flick that’s since garnered a cult following for its hilarious overacting, paper-thin writing, and innovative kills. But for Max, Camp Bloodbath isn’t just a bad horror movie that all her friends enjoy. It’s a painful reminder that her mother is no longer with her, and she can’t help but avert her eyes every time the young, nubile Nancy meets her bloody end for having dared to have sex in an ‘80s horror movie.
The Final Girls is a brilliant, hysterically funny riff on the camp slasher subgenre and on the innate sexisms of horror movies in general, but it’s also a sneakily touching film about nostalgia and grief and what happens when you allow those things to stop you from living. One night, Max agrees to join her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and Gertie’s horror geek stepbrother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) at a local double feature of Camp Bloodbath and its sequel. She goes because she’s begged and because the sensitive, handsome Chris (Alexander Ludwig) is going. Sure, Chris’ obnoxious ex Vicki (Nina Dobrev) tags along, but it’s all innocuous enough until a freak accident leads to the theater catching fire.
In a panic, Max leads her friends through the screen in an attempt to find an escape route, only to discover that they’ve literally entered Camp Bloodbath. From there The Final Girls functions as both parody and deconstruction, lovingly nicking the campy tropes of the subgenre while messing around with the infinite loop that Camp Bloodbath creates around Max. There’s also the matter of Nancy, who’s as fresh-faced and glowing as ever, forcing Max to confront not only her inability to move on, but also the inevitability of losing her mother all over again. That is, unless the script can be flipped this time.
Director Todd Strauss-Schulson has made something genuine and special with The Final Girls, a horror comedy that actually manages to execute both of those things with skill, finesse, and a clear and genuine affection for the genre. From the film’s countless meta in-jokes, to the opening grindhouse trailer for Camp Bloodbath, to its tweaking of the promiscuity-punishing approach of so many slasher movies in light of modern ethics, The Final Girls is the kind of film that could only be made by a true scholar of the form. While Strauss-Schulson can clearly count Edgar Wright among his many, many influences (the editing style is a spot-on homage, to put it generously), Girls manages to be utterly original in its knowing rip-off artistry.
It’s hard to imagine the film working as well as it does without the completely game cast, as well. Akerman and Farmiga make a moving mother-daughter team, the latter more of an adult than the flighty former. This isn’t to say Nancy is entirely oblivious; there’s a poignant metaphor about arrested development at play in Nancy’s legitimate inability to grow old or stop making the same mistakes. It’s a completely believable relationship and bolsters the film’s more wrenching, powerful moments. For a movie that also prominently features Adam DeVine as every hyper-masculine horndog that’s ever appeared in a slasher film at once, The Final Girls finds a wealth of emotion in the connections movies draw between people and the strange, personal meanings they can take on with age.
To reiterate, though, The Final Girls is just as funny as it is thoughtful. DeVine is excellent, as is Middleditch as the Jamie Kennedy-in-Scream character, the guy who has the movie-within-the-movie so figured out that anything unexpected earns a response that’s less panicked than full of glee and mirth. That’s to say nothing of the interplay between Dobrev, Shawkat, and Farmiga, who hit on the primal emotions of women who grew up friends and were slowly split apart by the harsh realities of adulthood, some faster than others. That’s what makes The Final Girls such a treat, the way in which it seamlessly juxtaposes guffaws with a massive heart. Where Camp Bloodbath was the good kind of bad, this is just the great kind of good.