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Dustin Putman





The Final Girls  (2015)
3½ Stars
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson.
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Adam DeVine, Thomas Middleditch, Angela Trimbur, Chloe Bridges, Tory N. Thompson, Lauren Gros, Dan B. Norris.
2015 – 88 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, some crude and sexual material, language and drug use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for TheFrightFile.com, October 6, 2015.
"The Final Girls" embraces an undeniable love for the slasher genre while innovatively subverting conventions. Similar to the approach of 1996's "Scream" while going in an entirely new direction, the film's meta-savvy approach blurs the line between fiction and reality while nonetheless confronting the truths of the characters with heartfelt affection. It's a daffy comedy, and a horror movie, but it's also more than that. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson (2011's "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas") and screenwriters Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin have attracted an outstanding cast, and it's plain to see how. This is one of the most giddily original, surprisingly imagined pictures of the year.

Three years ago, teenager Max (Taissa Farmiga) lost her mom, former horror actress Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), in a terrible auto accident. Now, on the anniversary of her death, Amanda's claim to fame, 1986's "Camp Bloodbath," is being shown theatrically on a double-bill with "Camp Bloodbath 2: Cruel Summer." Max hesitantly decides to join her friends for the showing as a way of commemorating her mom, but when a freak fire breaks out in the auditorium, their desperate exit through a tear in the screen sends them directly into the movie. Stuck in a 92-minute loop, Max and her pals—sensible best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and her geeky brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), hunky nice-guy Chris (Alexander Ludwig), and Max's snotty ex-BFF Vicki (Nina Dobrev)—have but one means of escaping to the end credits: abide by the strict rules of slasher cinema and pose as (chaste) Camp Blue Finch counselors alongside the film's libidinous victims-to-be. For Max, this means coming face to face with her mother's ill-fated onscreen alter-ego, Nancy.

From the opening VideoVerse Entertainment studio logo—a nostalgic callback to the VHS-era Vestron branding—clear through to the use of Bananarama's "Cruel Summer," "The Final Girls" pays pitch-perfect tribute to 1980s horror without coming off as a one-joke gimmick. Miller and Fortin's script has a well-developed, clearly defined story to tell and an ensemble of endearingly colorful characters to juggle. The reverence director Todd Strauss-Schulson has for the movies he is referencing and aping is never in doubt; a guitar-strumming sing-along to "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" a 'la 1980's "Friday the 13th" is proof enough he knows his stuff. While astutely capturing the tone of a low-budget mad-slasher pic, Strauss-Schulson elevates his own, bringing added layers to protagonist Max and her Sidney Prescott-like arc as a teenage girl who comes into her own while grappling with the tragic loss of a parent.

The heart of "The Final Girls"—and the film has a huge one—steadfastly lies in the relationship between Max and mother Amanda. In a prologue set before the accident that took Amanda's life, this mother and daughter share an instantaneous natural bond, one that is crucial in selling the missing hole left behind when they are ripped apart. Max's out-there situation of being transported into the world of a movie is milked for plenty of knowing winks at the audience, but Taissa Farmiga (2013's "The Bling Ring") and her co-stars play their parts straight. Adding one more corkscrew to this plot is Max's disbelieving reunion with her mom—or, to be clear, her mom's popular on-camera character, Nancy, who has no idea she is in a film. Max's protectiveness of this unconfident young woman, scripted to lose her virginity (and, hence, sign her death warrant) by the second act, is sweet and touching as her friendship with Nancy gracefully metamorphoses.

Taissa Farmiga is an ideal final girl, a Jennifer Love Hewitt (whom she resembles) for the post-naught era. Farmiga is acutely sympathetic, giving Max a necessary resourcefulness and vulnerability made all the more powerful as she claws her way out of her own grief and decides to fight. She and Malin Akerman (2012's "Rock of Ages"), portraying both Amanda and Amanda's famed role of Nancy, share an exquisite chemistry. Part mother, part friend, part horror-movie fodder, Akerman is asked to embody a number of distinct sides and personas while building Nancy far beyond a one-note construct at the mercy of the cheesy "Camp Bloodbath" screenplay. It is a tricky balancing act, but one that Akerman pulls off with spunky humor and ultimate pathos.

The supporting performers are deliciously used. Alexander Ludwig (2015's "Final Girl") is a poster boy for the ideal male love interest as Max's pal/crush Chris, likable and ingratiating from the start. As Gertie, Alia Shawkat (2014's "Life After Beth") is not exactly stretching as the lead female's acerbic, trustworthy friend—she has had similar roles many times over in 2009's "Whip It" and 2013's "The To Do List," to name but a couple—but it is a part she handles exceedingly well. Nina Dobrev (2012's "The Perks of Being a Wallflower") transcends one's initial reading of Vicki, whose conceited demeanor is torn down as her close past with Max comes to light. Angela Trimbur (2009's "Halloween II") is a comedic standout as Tina, an up-for-anything sexpot from "Camp Bloodbath" who is instructed to wear a life vest and mittens as a means of stopping her from disrobing. Also portraying stereotypical figures from the nearly 30-year-old flick, Adam DeVine (2015's "The Intern") is energetic and over-the-top as alpha male Kurt, while Chloe Bridges (2013's "Family Weekend") is memorable as Paula, the tough-as-nails final girl whose destined character trajectory is thrown out of whack by the real-world interlopers.

"You were always the brave one," Vicki tells Max in a fateful late moment between them, "Be brave again." "The Final Girls" is blazingly entertaining, just about as feel-good as a movie about a masked killed named Billy seeking revenge for a decades-old prank-gone-wrong can be. Beyond its auspicious satire—the use of flashbacks and slow-motion in key moments are ingenious, while the film's comment on the antiquated '80s attitudes about homosexuality and gender/racial profiling are spot-on—the film is technically vital. Elie Smolkin's cinematography emanates dreamlike elegance, a lustrous, dynamic blend of summery golden hues and moon-tinted menace. Katie Byron's production design, Alexi Gomez's art direction, and Lynette Meyer's costumes present a dynamite collision between modern and retro styles. Composer Gregory James Jenkins' music is like a long-lost Harry Manfredini score newly uncovered. The carefully chosen soundtrack—Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes" recurs as a poignant anthem between Max and Amanda, while Wang Chung's "Dance Hall Days" and Toni Basil's "Mickey" also appear—further authenticates the world in which the film is set and the poppy feeling director Todd Strauss-Schulson is going for. As Nancy is gradually clued into her destiny, there is a bittersweet beauty in watching as Max prepares to finally let go of the person who is but isn't but really kind of is her mother. "The Final Girls" is whip-smart, sneakily intense, and always amusing, but its attention to detail and unexpected emotional resonance are what sell it as so much more than a clever, lightweight ode to the glory days of stalking and slashing.
© 2015 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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