Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: The Final Girls (2015)

The Final Girls (2015)

Rated PG-13 for horror violence, some crude and sexual material, language and drug use

The Final Girls is the sort of horror parody made for, and by, people who absolutely love horror movies. It is fully aware that the '80s slashers it's lampooning had all manner of problems, both technically (in terms of acting and writing) and thematically (the manner in which they seemed to be punishing their young characters for their licentiousness) -- and yet, unlike films like Scary Movie and The Cabin in the Woods that were merciless in their parody of the genre, The Final Girls loves them anyway. It's almost a reclamation of sorts of the much-maligned '80s slasher, taking a timeworn story, adding a supernatural meta twist, and most importantly, giving it a bigger heart than quite possibly any other horror film or comedy I've seen all year. It's not without its problems, especially in terms of a few jokes missing the mark and a distinct lack of blood for an '80s horror homage, but it's still an outstanding little film in both what it sets out to do and what it pulls off.

Our protagonist is Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga), the daughter of '80s "scream queen" Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) who was famous for her roles in slasher movies of the time -- most notably the 1986 cult classic Camp Bloodbath. Three years ago today, Amanda died in a car wreck, and in her honor, both Camp Bloodbath films are being screened at the local theater. Max reluctantly goes to the screening with her friends Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Chris (Alexander Ludwig), and Vicki (Nina Dobrev), understandably not eager to watch her mother get hacked to death on screen in front of her. But when a fire breaks out in the theater, Max and her friends "escape" and find themselves sucked into the world of Camp Bloodbath, where all the rules of '80s slasher flicks, including sex being a death sentence, the black dude dying first, and utterly stupid, stupid victims, all play out for real. Now, Max is torn between escaping this world with her friends and getting to see her mother again (and possibly save her this time), while the characters in Camp Bloodbath are quite surprised to see these new "counselors" in their strange clothes showing up at the camp.

To begin with, let me take some time to profusely apologize to Taissa Farmiga. Having seen her in two seasons of American Horror Story (Murder House and Coven), I thought that she wasn't a particularly great actress, not bad but certainly not as good as her older sister Vera. In this film, however, her casting is perfect. Amidst the zany comedy around her, she's the straight (wo)man, more concerned with the fact that she's seeing her mother for the first time in three years -- albeit in a form that's bound to end badly for her. For Max, Camp Bloodbath is the worst possible movie she could have been sucked into, one in which her mother is once again in mortal peril and is, in fact, fated to die according to the script. She didn't even want to see the movie in the first place lest she have flashbacks to the accident, and now she has to live it. I won't spoil the exact path Max's journey takes, but it gets downright heartbreaking towards the end as she's forced to confront the loss of her mother head-on. It's Farmiga's show all around, and she gives a really good performance, as does Malin Akerman as both her mother Amanda and as Nancy, the character she played in the movie. Nancy, for all her "dumb blonde" appearance (she's the shy girl with the clipboard who loses her virginity and dies at the midway point), is shown to be far smarter than that, coming to develop a fatalistic view as she learns that she's a doomed character in a movie -- and that maybe this isn't so bad.

However, while Farmiga and Akerman provide the human core of the film, the rest of the cast is no slouch either, especially when it comes to comedy. Max's friends are mostly defined by their relationships with her, and Nancy's fellow counselors get little development (as is to be expected), but all of them are played by a mix of talented comedians (like Adam DeVine from Workaholics and Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development) and young "it-list" stars (like Alexander Ludwig and Nina Dobrev) who all turn in good-to-great performances. The film just goes crazy making fun of every cliche that ever existed in '80s summer camp slashers, from the boneheaded dialogue to the order in which everybody usually dies to the reasons why they die (sex is such a big no-no that flashing one's tits literally acts as a beacon for the killer). The production values too are brought to life, with title cards and subtitles physically existing in the universe (which the modern teens notice but the film's characters don't), slow-motion literally slowing down time, and flashback scenes transporting the modern teens into an alternate dimension that's in black and white. We see the one-note writing of the stock characters taken to its logical conclusion -- the dumb, slutty chick, for instance, is virtually unable to go more than five minutes without flashing her tits, and seems to have a genuine mental handicap on top of it. Some of the best howlers were, unfortunately, spoiled by the trailer, while in other cases they didn't quite stick the landing. However, the ratio of hits to misses was better than 50/50, so overall, the comedy worked.

Another thing that struck me was just how good this movie looked. The director and cinematographer went all-out in their imitation of '80s horror movie styles redone with modern technology, resulting in a film that is utterly awash in vibrant color. Old camera tricks are brought into the modern age for some very creative shots, and as the film goes on, the visual style starts stepping up its game into something that's less an '80s slasher and more reminiscent of classic Dario Argento. Seriously, this movie is gorgeous in how surreal it gets. The only thing that was really strange was that the color red seemed to be missing from this film's otherwise full use of the color wheel -- it's rated PG-13, and while it pushes the limit of that rating as far as it can go, it still felt like it was holding back on a number of occasions. I've heard that the PG-13 cut I saw wasn't the director's original intention, and that this was originally shot with an R rating; if so, I'd love to see the deleted scenes or perhaps a director's cut.

Score: 4 out of 5

Good horror-comedies are hard to pull off, but this film, by and large, does it. Its love of the genre, characters that I was truly invested in, and its wicked sense of humor were definitely enough to overcome the few problems it had. If you love old-school '80s horror, give this one a look.

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