Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Guest Post: The Final Girls (2015)

The Final Girls, A 'Bloody' Valentine to '80s Slasher Fans

By Jonas Schwartz

Characters have been stepping into movie screens since projectionist Buster Keaton jumped into a contrived mystery movie in Sherlock Jr. Woody Allen most lovingly utilized the convention in The Purple Rose of Cairo when Depression Era Mia Farrow and adventurer movie character Jeff Daniels took turns sharing the real world and the celluloid world with each other. Now, Todd Strauss-Schulson brings this concept to the horror genre in a hysterical spoof of the "dead teenagers" movies with a cast that those Friday the 13ths could only dream of.

Teen Max (Taissa Farmiga, American Horror Story: Murder House and Coven) lost her mother (Malin Akerman, TV’s Trophy Wife) in a freak accident three years prior. Now on the anniversary of her mother's death, Max is forced by friends to attend a screening of a cult classic that her mother once starred in, Camp Bloodbath. Due to a fire, Max and her friends escape though the screen but inexplicably land INSIDE the horror film.

Max and her friends Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and Vicki (Nina Dobrev) stumble around the familiar campgrounds, mingle with future victims with archetype personalities (nerd, tramp, man-whore) and come face-to-face with the heartless murderer, Billy Murphy, and his sharp machete.

Wes Craven's Scream was revolutionary because for a change, the victims had seen horror movies, had grown up with the conventions, and were armed with survival tactics. But The Final Girls cunningly takes it to the next level. Max and the gang haven't just seen movies like the situation they're facing, they've seen THIS SPECIFIC FILM, over and over. They know where and when Billy will strike and how he will die. Unfortunately, their first plan, to force the counselors to not partake in sin and to hang with the final girl of Camp Bloodbath, a tough streetwise Paula who is supposed to eviscerate Billy with his own weapon, goes up in smoke, along with the alleged final girl. With Paula dead, all bets are off and our wily friends need to think of new maneuvers to end the invincible Billy.

M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller's screenplay toys with conventions and both have obviously studied every nuance of the films they tribute (Miller has stakes in the horror genre as a child. He played the protagonist's son in Halloween III: Season of the Witch and the eternally youthful vampire in Near Dark). The modern day heroes are unprepared for movie tricks. They find their life repeating itself every 92 minutes (the length of Camp Bloodbath), they get trapped in a black/white world of flashbacks, and are even handicapped during a chase due to slow motion.   The jokes told by the victims, particularly snarky Adam DeVine as the camp lothario, are appropriately lame, while the real world group observes and comments on the horror principles. Max and her friends see credits roll and hear the Harry Manfredini-inspired (stolen) Friday The 13th theme motif before Billy strikes.

What makes The Final Girl so lasting is that the filmmakers refuse to go just for laughs. The script touches the heart in unexpected ways.  Max is not only amongst characterless victims and a machine-like monster, she gets to spend time with Nancy, a shy country girl with a clipboard and a guitar who is supposed to die after losing her virginity to the camp stud. Nancy is not just a random fatality, she's the character Max's mother had played in the movie.  Now Max gets a second chance to keep her mother safe even when her friends try to remind her Nancy is neither real nor actually her mother.

Director Strauss-Schulson pays homage to all those so-bad-it's-good slice and dice movies like The Burning, Sleepaway Camp and the territory of Jason Voorhees. But he visually and thematically evokes memories of The Wizard of Oz. The camp’s outdoors are sprinkled with bright colored flowers and inviting forests where a girl just wants to leave a fantasy world to return home. Max, like Dorothy Gale, is an orphan. She takes her spiritual journey with a group of friends but in the end must lean on herself to succeed.

Strauss-Schulson’s color schemes, mostly primary colors, are so extreme, they conjure up the films of Wes Anderson or the moodiness of David Lynch. Often, counselors wearing yellow will walk through red lit rooms with blue fog seeping in. The Technicolor world where Max has landed is so stylized it could only resemble Oz or the cartoon world of Walt Disney.

The cast is pitch-perfect. The Camp Bloodbath acting is wooden and trite, but performed by talented actors, like DeVine, who instead of winking at the audience, play the roles as they imagine amateur low budget actors would have in the '80s. Skawkat and Thomas Middleditch, who both come from cult TV comedies, Arrested Development and Silicon Valley, respectively, are adept at modern satire. Dobrev, also from TV in her first major role since leaving six seasons of Vampire Diaries, revels as the resident mean girl, but one self-aware that she's acting out and falling into the paradigm of a '80s horror movie victim.

The film belongs to Farmiga and Akerman, though. Their chemistry is loving and supportive and makes the script shine. Farmiga, who always captures teenage angst such that audiences empathize with, grounds this zany film with earnestness and compassion.

The Final Girls may not be as twisty as Cabin In the Woods or as laugh-a-minute as Shaun of the Dead, but the creators, avid slasher enthusiasts, have built a mousetrap that will delight fans as an homage and send-up to a most notorious genre. 

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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