Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review: The Final (2010)

The Final (2010)

Fifteen years after Columbine (fifteen years? Damn, I'm old), we are officially at the point where high school freshmen will be memorializing the anniversary of a tragedy that happened before they were born. We must ask ourselves a few questions. What lessons should we have taken away from it? Did we learn those lessons? Could it have been prevented, and how? Could another Columbine happen? And finally, and more importantly for the purpose of this review, is it still too soon to make movies about teenagers killing each other? In cinema, the most immediate impact of the Columbine High School massacre was that it ended the late '90s teen horror boom, kicked off by the success of Scream, virtually overnight. The few movies in that subgenre that trickled out after Columbine were box-office flops, almost none were put into production afterwards, and outside of remakes, American horror protagonists have almost uniformly been adults, from the twentysomething dudebros of Hostel to the lowlifes and detectives of the Saw movies to the moms and dads of many a Blumhouse ghost pic. Some would say that it's always too soon, and that we shouldn't be "glamorizing" such actions. Teen-lit writer Suzanne Collins thought otherwise and wrote The Hunger Games, a book (and later movie) about two dozen teenagers being forced to murder one another.

And then you have today's movie, The Final. Released four years ago as part of the After Dark Horrorfest, The Final takes what had become (post-Columbine) uncomfortable subtext in many '90s teen slashers and turns it into straight-up text. The villains here, a gang of five high school outcasts sick of being picked on by the cool kids, invite said jocks and queen bees to a Halloween party, where they are then drugged, chained up, and forced to watch as, one by one, they are brought to the front of the room and tortured in creative fashion. The outcasts go out of their way to avoid murdering anyone, instead hoping that the popular kids will be thrown to the bottom of the high school pecking order as a result of their disfigurements, while even those who escape without losing any appendages will have learned a hard lesson. While the outcasts' leader Dane is shown to be a vindictive bully himself, and the film ends with the five of them either dead or in police custody, the ending implies that their victims had brought their night of hell upon themselves and had learned a very hard lesson as a result of it. It is left an open question whether or not what they did was justified retribution or their moral event horizon.

There's no way around the elephant in the room on this one: this is a film that takes the victims of a high school massacre and paints them as being the (im)moral equals of the people who tried to murder and mutilate them, while the bullied outcasts who caused such mayhem, despite being clear bad guys, had understandable motive. The legacy of Columbine was pretty clearly looming over the makers of this film, who went so far as to give the ringleader Dane a trenchcoat as his costume in case the comparisons weren't obvious enough. The Final's grand statement about school bullying and violence is certainly... controversial, to say the least, and it's likely that a lot of people who watch this movie will be cheering the outcasts on. This, in turn, makes it that much scarier even with a minimum of graphic violence. It's a movie with much bigger ideas than its tiny budget can properly bring to life, with many main characters (bully and outcast alike) receiving little development and plot threads often being mentioned once and then ignored. My enjoyment of The Final in spite of it all probably says a lot of not-so-pleasant things about me, but I don't really care.

What else can I say, I enjoyed this movie. It was well-shot and put together nicely, and while the special effects are pretty good and the punishments quite brutal, the film doesn't go overboard with them -- a rarity in a subgenre that's often derisively known as "torture porn", but a decision (which may or may not have been forced by the budget) that works regardless, letting us imagine the most violent moments thanks to effective sound design. (The sound of, say, a knife twisting in someone's spinal cord works just as well even without actually seeing it go in.) Some of the acting here isn't up to snuff -- the ostensible "hero" Kurtis felt stiff and wooden -- but the outcast villains all did well enough. Special props go to Marc Donato (of Degrassi fame) as Dane, who manages to be scary even with his relatively small stature and boyish looks, while anime fans will also be interested in seeing voice actress Lindsay Seidel in a live-action film, here playing Emily, the token girl among the outcasts who gets in a fun shout-out to Audition, one of the great modern horror movies.

That said, the film has a major problem with having too many subplots running at once, many of which are left hanging. The limitations of time and budget, combined with some missed opportunities on the part of writer/director Jason Kabolati, mean that some of the bigger ideas that the film brings up are largely glossed over. Early on, we see the outcasts rigging up video cameras inside their ranch house/torture site, intending to broadcast their mayhem and their twisted agenda over the internet in order to spread their message of vengeance far and wide. This is literally never brought up again, not even in the epilogue when the news is reporting on the tragedy. Worse, had the film given more attention to this subplot, it could've been a good avenue towards consolidating another subplot that drags the film down -- Kurtis' escape from captivity, during which he seeks refuge and help from a survivalist 'Nam vet. This, in turn, would've removed the need to explain the three goons that Dane and company have brought on to help them guard the place and stop runaways, who here get only a single throwaway line of dialogue near the beginning explaining their presence; I had to rewatch the film to catch just who they were supposed to be. All of this could've been simplified thus: some computer-savvy geek watching the mayhem online manages to figure out where they're broadcasting from, then calls the police. This not only would've left fewer dangling plot threads, it would've left more room for developing the outcasts and their victims. Ravi's struggle with racist abuse from his classmates, Jack's working-class upbringing and broken home life, and more all get relatively little screen time, largely ignored to focus on a few characters.

Score: 3 out of 5

This is an exceptionally wrong film on a number of levels, and it has problems with plotting, but it's still a good thriller in spite -- or perhaps, even because -- of it.

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