Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Writer: M.A. Fortin, Joshua John Miller
Producer: Michael London, Janice Williams
Stars: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine, Thomas Middleditch, Alia Shawkat, Alexander Ludwig, Nina Dobrev, Chloe Bridges, Angela Trimbur, Tory N. Thompson
A teenage girl and her friends are mysteriously transported inside a 1980s horror film starring the girl’s scream queen mother.
Pigeonholed as a forgotten scream queen thanks to her role as a virginity-losing counselor in the cult classic “Camp Bloodbath,” aging actress Amanda Cartwright soothes the sting of another fruitless audition by engaging in car ride karaoke with her daughter Max. Closer to best friends than mother and daughter, Max is devastated when their vehicle suddenly bank shots off another, tragically taking Amanda’s life in the process.
Three years later, teenage Max still mourns her heartbreaking loss. Max would prefer to pine in peace for hunky heartthrob Chris or mope over milkshakes with best friend Gertie. That is until Gertie’s movie geek stepbrother Duncan makes an offer she can’t refuse and a hesitant Max becomes the VIP guest of honor at a midnight revival screening of her mother’s magnum opus.
What Max does not yet know is that she is about to fulfill a longstanding fantasy of finally reuniting with mom. Or at least, the camp counselor character mom once played. A fire breaks out in the theater, an escape route is torn into the screen, and through literal movie magic, Max and her friends are inexplicably transported to 1986, where they come face to face with the characters of “Camp Bloodbath,” including vengeful masked maniac Billy Murphy and his blood-soaked machete. Never mind the family reunion. Max and company have to make it out of a horror movie come to life, assuming they can figure out the rules for surviving in a fictional film world first.
Comedy-horror sendups of 1980s slashers have become commonplace enough to now be as derivatively overdone as the genre they lampoon for that very reason. Where “The Final Girls” overshadows that glut is in the genuinely humorous context behind its gags. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson, “The Final Girls” doesn’t just point out tropes with a wink, expecting a pat on the back for simply identifying clichés every film fan already knows. It plants well-worn chestnuts into clever setups before seeing them through to funny, original punchlines.
Clinging confidently throughout to a sense of humor that playfully blends comedy with horror, the film doesn’t trip itself up by being slavishly reverential to its references. While obvious influences like “The Burning,” “Sleepaway Camp,” and “Friday the 13th” (review here) push the premise, “The Final Girls” pulls its chief inspiration from sources with a spirit of escapist film fantasy like “Back to the Future,” “Groundhog Day,” and “Last Action Hero.”
“Eh, it’s magic” is the extent of explanation for how Max transports inside “Camp Bloodbath” in the first place. Once the comic carnage is in full swing, which is swiftly, rational reasons for anything going on have no practical use to the viewer anyway. Fun is always the foremost focus.
Given the movie’s themes, some character motivations are mildly misguided. Max pins the blame for her mother’s death onto her own chest, for instance. Her grief would be just as deserving of sympathy even if she weren’t unfairly burdened with being inadvertently responsible for the accidental car crash. Why writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller felt it necessary to bog Max down with such terrible guilt is a smidge of a mystery.
Along similar lines, Max’s romantic interest Chris is the person who puts together the main plan for killing Billy Murphy. It’s terrific that the script ensures everyone in the cast has a meaningful purpose beyond just looking pretty, but it somewhat dilutes an otherwise strong portrayal of empowerment where the most heroic actions usually have a young woman holding the hilt.
Mixing this many moods of splatter, slapstick, and surprisingly sweet family drama leads to lopsided scenes where the balance topples in one direction more than the others. Tenderly touching mother-daughter moments come on strong enough to make a Lifetime Channel screenwriter blush. So much sweetness sits in the movie’s center that hardcore horror fans may even find themselves developing diabetes from the overemphasized tear-jerking. Although “The Final Girls” often teases like it might tailspin too far into movie-of-the-week melodramatics, spiritedly sincere acting possesses an uncanny knack for pulling the nose up and putting the plane back on course.
As much overexertion as there is when it comes to tugging at heartstrings, the film makes out in the open nods to great 1980s gags without feeling like the references are smashing you square in the face. Even though the movie may be too “meta” for some, “The Final Girls” still handles the core comedy and horror elements with enough care to keep the genre-blending entertainment at maximum capacity. Like Joe Dante’s “Matinee” or the underrated “Popcorn” (review here), “The Final Girls” is a self-aware tribute to what makes movie-going a universally beloved experience, as well as being a smartly conceived and horrifically hilarious film in its own right.
Review Score: 80