When I first heard about The Final Girls back in August, I was totally delighted by the concept and I had every intention of watching the movie in theater. Unfortunately, I then discovered that this was not meant to be, for the film had a limited release, and Sonoma County–not shockingly–was not part of said release. I was pretty bummed by this.
Now, however, I’ve finally had time to watch the film. My conclusions?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure The Final Girls just made it on my list of Favorite Horror Comedies of all time.
I won’t spoil this movie until we come to the official and very clearly marked Spoiler Section. I will, however, absolutely spoil Shaun of the Dead. If you haven’t seen that film, you know, go watch it immediately and then come back. (Alternatively, you can just skip Note 1, but seriously. Just watch it.)
Max (Taissa Farmiga), an orphan, reluctantly goes to the cult showing of Camp Bloodbath, an 80’s slasher that her mom, Amanda (Malin Ackerman), once starred in. When the theater starts to burn down, though, Max and her friends escape into the movie itself. Now they have to figure out how to survive masked killer Billy until the end of the film . . . and also see if they can save Nancy, Amanda’s ill-fated character, from a grisly demise.
1. Some of my very favorite movies in the world are horror-comedies, but it is not, overall, a genre people generally expect much emotional depth from. You come for the wacky shenanigans, the meta wordplay, the gory hijinks. Less so for the kleenex and Feels.
But the most successful stories in any genre, I think, know how to walk the delicate balance between drama and humor. Shaun of the Dead, for example, is a hilarious film in and of itself, but one reason I found it so particularly brilliant was the unexpectedly heartbreaking moments when a) Shaun has to kill his Zombie Mom, and b) Shaun has to leave behind a dying Ed in order to escape. Shaun of the Dead was one of the first horror comedies I ever saw that both made me laugh and tugged on my heartstrings. Because of this, I have always held it in my heart as sort of the gold standard of horror comedies.
The Final Girls, though, is on something of another level.
The mother-daughter relationship between Amanda/Nancy and Max is phenomenal. There are some really great gut punches here. Great parallels, too. I can’t talk much more about this before the Spoiler Section, but I will admit, without shame, that this movie absolutely made me tear up. It’s true, that’s not exactly the hardest accomplishment in the whole world, but still. This is very much a movie about grief and trying to move forward. It just also happens to be a movie about getting trapped in a campy slasher story, too.
2. The cast is pretty rock solid.
Of the present-day kids, the only one I don’t particularly like is Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). He’s the horror movie geek of the group, which should automatically make him my people, and yet I find him more annoying than anything else. I’m not sure if it’s more of an acting thing or a character thing — he’s kind of insensitive little shit — but either way, it’s a pretty minor complaint. He didn’t, like, make me wanna rip out my hair or anything.
Everyone else, though, is pretty great. If Max were played by a weaker actress, I could easily see how her depression might slide to whininess–not unlike Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer–but Taissa Farmiga is solid here. I really like Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev a great deal too. (Christ, it’s nice to see Dobrev outside of The Vampire Diaries. I mean, I was a big fan of that show for a while, but Elena? Never my favorite.) There are a couple of Girl Friendship scenes which I’ll discuss later that pretty much mean everything to me.
Even Chris (Alexander Ludwig), the love interest who has such all-American appeal that he oughta be served with a slice of apple pie, totally works.
Seriously, this kid looks like he was born to play the rich asshole/star quarterback, but Chris is actually pretty funny and smart and doesn’t have time for outdated homophobia, not to mention the wonderful scene where he — the Lead Male Romantic Interest — admits that he’s afraid. Guys, it’s just beautiful.
3. The 80’s kids are all good too, particularly Adam Devine and Angela Trimbur.
I know Adam Devine’s kind of a big deal in comedy, but the only thing I really know him from is that one Thanksgiving episode of Community that no one likes. (I’m actually the exception here. I know, as a Community fan, it’s my duty to hate everything from Season Four, but there are moments that I did enjoy, and Jeff finally telling off his dad in that episode was one of them.) Anyway, Devine’s pretty great as that Dumb, Horny Guy from every horror movie. His supposedly sexy genie bit cracked me up.
Angela Trimbur, meanwhile, plays the equally dumb Tina, whose primary function in Camp Bloodbath is to sexy dance at everything, even, somehow, Kumbaya. She’s hilarious, and her Big Striptease Moment? Perfection.
4. Still, I think that, due to the nature of the story, this movie really lives or dies on the strength of one actress’s performance: Malin Ackerman.
Amanda/Nancy isn’t an easy role to rock. Amanda’s a failed actress who pretty clearly makes poor life choices, particularly when it comes to men, but she’s not the stereotypically trashy, terrible parent that kind of character description often implies. She’s actually pretty likable, which is a feat in and of itself, considering how little time you get to spend with her. Nancy, meanwhile, is a naive little wallflower, the shy girl with the clipboard and guitar, with all the personality of lightly buttered toast. No one cares about the Nancys of the horror genre; they’re boring and deeply unrealistic–nobody is this vanilla, nobody.
But Malin Ackerman has to make you care about Nancy, and she does. She has to make Amanda and Nancy two completely different people who are still similar enough for the audience to sympathize with Max’s struggle separating them. She does that, too.
Ackerman also has to rock the hell out of lip-synching “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. It could be contrived as hell, but man, Ackerman makes it work. Crap, that song’s gonna be stuck in my head for weeks, isn’t it? (Well, at least it should replace “Starman.” I like you, David Bowie, but enough already.)
5. Here’s one thing I would like to say, though: say you’re in a movie theater that’s currently burning down, and your friend leads you and a small group of your buddies to an exit behind the screen. You look behind you and see that most people are still screaming, running around, unaware of the exit you’ve discovered and unable to get to any other because they’re all blocked.
When you see this chaos behind you, do you . . .
A: Yell out, “Hey, guys, there’s an exit over here!” and hope at least someone hears you over the general panic.
B. Watch mournfully for half a moment, witnessing the tragic condition that is mortality, before exiting the burning building without even the slightest attempt to save anyone but your friends from an agonizing death.
Yeah, I’d pick B too. Cause fuck those guys, right?
6. The fake trailer for Camp Bloodbath is kind of the best. (Mild to moderate spoilers, I suppose.) Kum-bay-NOOOOOOO!
7. Finally, I just wanted to mention that if The Final Girls sounds interesting to you and you haven’t watched the actual trailer yet, maybe don’t? It doesn’t ruin the film or anything, but just like with Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, there are a few jokes here that would have been even funnier if I hadn’t remembered them from the preview.
With that disclaimer in mind, let’s move on, shall we?
Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows how much I appreciate a good reaction face, and the reaction faces of everyone here to the insanity around them are PERFECT. Specifically:
A: Max & Friends staring at the bus, all, “Uh . . . isn’t that . . . isn’t that from the movie?” when they first arrive in Camp Bloodbath. (“Mickey” by Toni Basil is another great song choice here. I’ve had a lot of childhood musical flashbacks lately with my movie choices.)
B. Max & Friends (but particularly Max) when they remember Nancy is sleeping in the back of the van.
C. Max & Friends during the Kumbaya sing-a-long.
D. Max & Friends when the Gooey Silver Flashback Stalactites start spiraling down from the ceiling. (Also, I loved how the 80’s characters all walked like robots and sat down at exactly the same time because they were following the script.)
Another favorite part of the story: the relationship between Max, Gertie, and Vicki.
So, Vicki (Dobrev) is the mean girl in the group, not to mention Chris’s desperate ex-girlfriend. Thus, she’s got her claws out for most of the film. (Not surprisingly, Vicki gets some of the very best lines.) But we also know that she and Max used to be friends, and it’s not a huge surprise when we find out that Vicki wasn’t the one to pull away first. Turns out, after her mom died, Max shut her best friend out. Later, she became good friends with the presumably unpopular Gertie (Shawkat), and Vicki, jealous, acted out.
For starters, it’s just nice to see a teenage conflict with girls that didn’t begin with one stealing the other’s boyfriend. It’s also nice to see Vicki’s fear of dying–you’d think horror movies would deal with this more, but generally, a character’s fear in a horror movie is usually immediate. Run, because the killer’s chasing me, not God, I’m really going to die tonight. The latter fear is actually more relatable due to the human condition and works well here within the setup of tropes: Vicki knows she’s doomed to die because mean girls never survive. I love the confession of fear, and I love the hug all three girls share.
Vicki does die, at least temporarily, as does Gertie. I was initially a little frustrated with this because I’d really been hoping The Final Girls would surprise me by doing some interesting subversion of tropes, but the ending–which I’ll get to in a few minutes–mollified that frustration quite a bit.
The death scene itself, though, really worked for me.
So, the Big Plan to Survive is to lure Evil Billy to the cabin with Tina’s scripted striptease, and then kill him through one of several booby traps planted throughout the house. It immediately doesn’t go as planned, though, as kids start getting killed left and right. (Including Tina, who actually trips straight into a booby trap. Oh, Tina. She takes a bunch of Vicki’s Adderall, which leads to what I assume is the funniest striptease you’ll ever watch on film. Tina is kind of the best.)
Gertie and Vicki try to set off another booby trap, but it jams or something, and Evil Billy traps them both under a heavy bookcase. He then stabs Gertie through said bookcase, bumming me the hell out. (As the best friend, Gertie had almost as little chance as Vicki of making it, but I was rooting for her anyway.) Vicki and Gertie tell Max to run, and Vicki holds Gertie’s hand before she manages to set off the trap, blowing up the room. It’s a really, really nice moment between the two former enemies, and one of my favorite parts of the film.
Of course, Evil Billy doesn’t die because that’s not how these stories work. Nancy is abducted, while Chris is badly wounded. Max goes to get her back. Chris pleads for her to stay, saying that Nancy’s already dead and that he doesn’t want to die alone–another great moment in this movie, showing how men, justly, feel fear in absolutely terrifying situations–but Max tells him that he won’t die and that she has to save her mom. And she does so, but is injured very badly herself, which leads to Nancy sacrificing herself because she knows that Evil Billy can’t be killed until there’s only one final girl left.
It’s kind of a gut-wrenching scene, particularly for a horror comedy. Max finally confesses that she’s Nancy’s (well, Amanda’s) daughter and that she wanted to save her mom. Nancy responds that Max already has, and it’s the kind of line that could end up feeling really trite and dumb, but Malin Ackerman makes it work. She goes to do a semi-strip tease (really, she just unbuttons her shirt and rolls her shoulders around a little) to lure Evil Billy out again, lip-synching to “Bette Davis Eyes,” which is the song Amanda was lip-synching when she was dying, just in case anybody felt like their heart hadn’t been stomped on enough. And it’s so weirdly joyful and tragic all at the same time because Nancy genuinely wants to do this for Max, but you can still see that she’s afraid no matter what she says, and that dream of her defeating her destiny and escaping into a world where she can be someone she wasn’t scripted to be dies with her. I definitely got all choked up watching.
(One small tangent: one of the only nitpicks I have about this movie is how many times they describe Nancy as “the shy girl with the clipboard and the guitar.” It only needed to be said twice, three times at absolute most. I think they say it somewhere between four and seven times. Kind of drove me nuts.)
Max, now the Final Girl, defeats and kills Evil Billy. She and a still-wounded Chris survive through the credits . . .
. . . and wake up in a hospital. (Well, she wakes, anyway. Chris is still unconscious at the end of the movie, parked beside her in one of those many co-ed hospital rooms you never, ever actually see.) And surprise! Duncan, Gertie, and Vicki are all alive again!
. . . and oh crap, I kind of forgot about Duncan. Okay, he seems to die earlier in the film, but comes back for one of those comic, ‘Wait, I’m not quite dead!’ moments before immediately being hit with a car. The accident ends up killing Kurt and Camp Bloodbath’s original final girl, Paula. (Paula’s interesting because she’s absolutely nothing like an actual 80’s final girl. Grindhouse flick, maybe. She’s all badass and wears a leather jacket and just happens to be a virgin, which is cool in a way because Hollywood so rarely has any virgin characters that aren’t uber religious or uber pathetic—but then of course she isn’t the story’s real final girl here, so she dies. Oh well.)
Anyway, all the modern-day kids are alive again, which I’m sure some people thought was a cop-out, but actually worked for me. For one, Nancy’s death scene is just kind of brutal. Max’s relationship with her mom is really the heart of the story, so letting a few teenagers survive doesn’t actually take away from the emotional impact. Second, it makes me feel a lot better about the subversion of tropes, because otherwise only the white virgin girl and her nice boy, white love interest would have survived. (Actually, in 80’s horror movies, I’m not sure the love interest usually does survive. But it’s super common in plenty of other movies with a high body count.) Also, it’s fair to note that we still primarily have white people surviving. There are only two token black roles in the whole movie (and neither character makes it), and no Latino roles or Asian roles at all. Alia Shawkat, who I believe is biracial, is the only real exception to this.
I was worried at first that we were going to Wizard of Oz this bullshit and have the whole thing be some kind of grief recovery dream, but luckily, that’s not the case. (Nor is there ever any explanation for how this all happened, which is obviously the best call.) Instead, we quickly discover that our heroes haven’t returned to their real world. They’ve only made it into the sequel.
I usually hate when horror movies end with, “But wait! The bad guy is still alive after all, MUAHAHAHA!” This, though, is kind of perfect. Partially because it’s a comedy, partially because the sequel set-up is very Halloween II, and partially because I completely forgot that the kids were at a double feature when they arrived at the movie theater. I don’t think anyone ever says it, but it’s featured on several posters in the movie, so it’s not an unsupported, completely cheap twist, like most last minute horror movie twists are.
Evil Billy emerges, Max goes to attack him, and that’s pretty much the end of the movie.
Chris: “Wow, your mom was gorgeous. I’m sorry. That’s a weird thing to say, isn’t it?”
Vicki: “Yeah, he just got, like, super sick, super fast.”
Gertie: “Oh no, not the super sick, super fast.”
Gertie: “Hey, just keep on keeping on.”
Max: “What does that even mean?”
Kurt: “What are you, a fag? You don’t like some nice big hoots? Hooting!”
Chris: “My dads are gay, so shut the hell up.”
Kurt: “Yeah, right! Gay guys can’t have kids! They’re too busy going to discos and having sex with each other. It’s actually a pretty cool lifestyle.”
Max: “Today is the anniversary of her death.”
Chris: “I don’t know what to say.”
Max: “Me either. At least I get to see her. Even if she is being chased by a psycho with a machete.”
Max: “We’re leaving.”
Kurt (taking off his pants, doing a dance): “Too late. Genie’s already out of the bottle. Make a wish.”
Max & Nancy: “Ew.”
Tina: “Why do I have to wear all this stuff again?”
Chris: “Because you’re scripted to do a striptease at the slumber party, and when you take your top off, Billy comes running.”
Tina: “But why does he hate my boobs? Cause they’re not big?”
Kurt: “Ooh, what’s up, fun bags?”
Vicki: “Funbags? Right. Yay, feminism.”
Max: “So, how do we get out of here?”
Gertie: “Yeah, I like that question. That’s a really, really good question. Duncan, can you answer that question? Please?”
Gertie: “Oh God, why am I colorblind? Am I having a stroke?”
Nancy: “I could like go to college!”
Nancy: “And drive a convertible.”
Nancy: “And go shopping at the mall!”
Max: “Actually, people don’t really shop at malls anymore; they shop online.”
Nancy: “What’s online?”
Max: “Never mind, I made that up. Just keep going.”
Nancy: “But I want to shop online. And I want to start over, you know, I could be different in the Valley.”
(Nancy hugs Max)
Nancy: “What if I don’t make it, Max?”
Max: “This time you will.”
Chris: “How you holding up?”
Max: “I’ve been better. How about you?”
Chris: “I’m really scared.”
Nancy: “I should have known something was up with this place. I mean, think about it. What the hell kind of summer camp has waterbeds?”
Vicki: “Wow, that’s evil.”
Gertie: “Thank you.”
Vicki: “No, no, no, just let me finish, okay? I know that I’ve become a–a–”
Vickie: “Yes, thank you, but the thing is, Max, I’ve always looked up to you because you were always the brave one. So be brave again.”
Max: “Vicki, you don’t have to die.”
Vicki: “I’m the mean girl in the 80’s horror movie and we’re past the midpoint, so, you know, I’d say that I’ve overstayed my welcome.”
Vicki: “I have a really good memory. It’s not just the Adderall.”
Vicki: “I wanna know where they keep the hardware in this dump. I want chainsaws and big ass knives and I want them now.”
Vicki: “I am glad that you die.”
I really liked this one a lot. I mean, any movie with an Adderall-fueled striped tease which can also make me cry is, I think, doing something right. Bonus points for both girl friendship scenes and allowing male characters to actually show fear. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.
Know your tropes. Also, know where your exits are in a movie theater and only tell your friends about them in the case of an emergency. You know those other assholes were just talking through the movie, anyway. Special hell, people.