When director Todd Strauss-Schulson introduced his newest film The Final Girls on the final day of the Toronto International Film Festival, he promised a love letter not only to horror, but to the slasher genre specifically. Strauss-Schulson, whose previous credits include A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas, spoke about the impact the Friday the 13th series and The Burning in particular had on the film. He also spoke of the film’s emotional resonance, how it dealt with love and loss which were important elements to him after the passing of his own father. All things considered, it’s an interesting mix of thematic elements, especially when most of the film plays like a send-up of a forgotten ’80s slasher. When the lights came up after the screening, the film had crashed in at a lean 88 minutes and while it soared in some of those minutes, it came to a grinding halt in others.
The film begins with a trailer for the fictional slasher film, Camp Bloodbath setting up the campy (ahem) quality of the film-within-a-film that the rest of The Finals Girls revolves around. Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) had several brushes with success but never achieved the big-time and is now raising her teenage daughter Max (Tessa Farmiga) alone. When Amanda is killed in a car crash, the film picks up a few years later when Max is coerced into attending a double-feature of Camp Bloodbath (where Amanda played the role of a doomed counsellor Nancy) and its sequel. During the screening, a fire breaks out in the theatre, leading Max and her friends to escape through the screen which transports them into the film, ergo into the sinister Camp Bloodbath. They are forced to live out the events of the film alongside the characters; most of whom develop into more fully formed characters as a result of the interlopers. Max, in particular, develops a bond with Nancy, the character portrayed by her mother, and attempts to save her from her fictional fate in the film. When the original Final Girl in the film is killed in an accident, it is up to Max and her friends to take up the mantle of Final Girl and save the day.
The Final Girl trope was named by film scholar Carol Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws in 1992, which we’ve talked about multiple times on our podcast. For me, the Final Girl was a big hook that led me down my path to horror lovin’: when I was younger, slasher films interested me because I got to see strong, kind, independent, “normal” women fighting back. Many people have sought to tackle and re-imagine the Final Girl in multiple ways, some more successfully than others (for my money, my favourite Final Girl is Sidney Prescott from Scream) and these re-imaginings even resulted in a similarly titled but much worse film, Final Girl (2015) starring Abigail Breslin. The problem with Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls is that it never seeks to understand what truly makes a Final Girl, other than an intact hymen. It never bothers to explore the idea of multiple Final Girls (as the title implies) and winds up standing around making fun of ’80s-style films and tropes. In the film-within-the-film, the characters deduce that there are a series of boxes that must be ticked off in order for Max to enter battle with the Jason Voorhees-like killer, Billy Murphy. The problem is, those boxes – which can be boiled down to the new Final Girl – must be a virgin and must kill the Killer with his own weapon, are some hella cherry-picked emblems of what makes a Final Girl. Yes, the Final Girl is chaste and possibly a virgin, but the film puts so much emphasis on virginity and the exposure of breasts and sex as an alert to the Killer to kill that it becomes a stretch to believe that these slasher films are about anything else, making it less a love letter to the genre and more of a kiss-off. The Final Girls of note are not always chaste and virginal, but they are almost always strong, compassionate and intelligent. Oddly enough, The Final Girls spends time revealing these traits in multiple characters in the film but never values them.
The film boasts a uniformly strong cast which unfortunately slow it down as they are all allowed to vamp and improv on screen – resulting in some truly funny moments but none that really add to the themes and plot of the film. The Final Girls does manage to earn some genuinely emotional moments between Max and Nancy as well as Vicki (Nina Dobrev) and Gertie (Alia Shawkat) which helps elevate parts of the film outside of the male gaze of the slasher narrative, which is heavily reliant on boobs and the showing of them. These emotional moments are what render The Final Girls tragically flawed. They suggest that the filmmakers know that the emotional bonds between the female characters are perhaps the strongest areas in the film but weren’t able to fully integrate them into the plot of the story which stems from a purposefully dated slasher. The characters don’t get to subvert or change their fates, they only succumb to them.
The Final Girls is an inoffensive semi-tribute to the slasher genre but rarely demonstrates any true understanding of it. It attempts too many things to be good at any one of them; it’s a coming of age story, a love story, a love lost story and a goofy horror film all in one. To truly get at the heart of what slashers and horror films have to offer, filmmakers have to be able to pull the intangible elements that have made these kind of films an industry all their own and explore what makes them tick – not just follow in their footsteps.