The slasher genre has been ruthlessly mocked for years, and so if you want to spoof it, you really have to bring something new to the table. Just pointing out the tropes isn’t enough anymore. The Cabin in the Woods was something fresh because it justified genre cliches with a massive conspiracy, and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil explained that it was all just a misunderstanding. The horror satire The Final Girls is entertaining enough, but unlike those two films, it has nothing particularly interesting to say.
In The Final Girls, Max (Taissa Farmiga) is recovering from the loss of her mom, a famous slasher movie actress from the ’80s. She’s dragged to a screening of her mother’s most famous film, Camp Bloodbath, but when the theater catches fire, Max and her friends try to escape through the screen and they somehow end up in the film. Don’t worry about how.
We’ve seen countless movies with self-aware characters who know they’re in a film, but we’ve never seen one where the characters literally are trapped in the movie. It’s a unique hook, and one that could allow for lots of funny observations about slasher flicks. Instead, the filmmakers only seem interested in making obvious jokes about horror that have been made a thousand times in better movies. If you have sex, you die! The black guy gets killed first! There’s so much nudity! We get it. It’s been done. The laughs in The Final Girls make it feel less like The Cabin in the Woods and more like Scary Movie. Instead of putting a unique spin on well known tropes, they’re just pointing them out.
While The Cabin in the Woods felt like it was made by people who truly understand and appreciate the genre, The Final Girls is a horror comedy made by – and for – people who don’t like horror movies. After all, the only character in the film who is a fan of Camp Bloodbath is made out to be a complete weirdo, and nobody else understands why it’s popular. If this is meant to be a “love letter to 80s horror,” as it has been described, why not have the characters love 80s horror? The Final Girls is tailor made for viewers who are vaguely aware of slashers but who don’t actually care about them.
The film also never fully commits to Camp Bloodbath being a legitimate ’80s slasher, and Adam DeVine’s performance is the most striking example of this issue. Never do we feel that he’s a character we’d see in an actual horror movie; He’s a character we’d see in a Saturday Night Live parody of horror movies. DeVine delivers every single line ironically with a wink and a nod, and that completely breaks the illusion that we’re watching a genuine ’80s relic. For the humor of this situation to work, Camp Bloodbath has to fit in with something like Friday the 13th or The Burning, and The Final Girls is never able to accomplish that. Once again, it appears the filmmakers don’t truly care about the subject matter they’re satirizing.
In general, the movie is also just never as funny as it should be, and far too much of the comedy falls flat. In particular there are a few sequences that were clearly improvised and that just go on way too long like this is a Judd Apatow production, and gags about how phones were different in the 1980s are beyond worn out at this point. The film’s best jokes rely on how weird it is that these characters are so blatantly racist and homophobic, and seeing modern teens react violently to the insensitivity of ’80s teens is a novel idea. It’s that kind of take on the subject matter that the film should have focused in on more, but these bits are few and far between.
Despite its failings, some of the logistics of the characters being trapped in the movie are indeed quite clever, and that’s what keeps The Final Girls from being a total failure. In every slasher, there’s the scene where one of the leads tells the origin story of the killer, and here, telling that story literally transports the characters back in time as if they’re experiencing the flashback as a real means of transportation. They’re even aware of the fact that they’re in black and white. Later, the movie plays around with the idea of title cards being actual physical things floating in the air in the film universe (although that’s something The Lego Movie did better almost two years ago.)
You’d expect The Final Girls to be heavy on comedy and light on any emotional weight, but it’s actually the other way around, as the dramatic arc is the reason to watch the film. While in Camp Bloodbath, Max is able to interact with her mom as a young woman kind of like Marty in Back to the Future, except this has even more resonance since in real life her mother is dead. Just like Max has to deal with the fact that these fictional characters are essentially already doomed since it’s a slasher movie, she has to accept the fact that her mother is dead and finally let go.
In some way, the entire thing is a giant metaphor for accepting death, and that’s the most original concept The Final Girls brings to the table. Since death is so horrifyingly inevitable, we’re all heading straight towards it just as any character in a slasher movie is heading straight towards the killer. It’s just that in our case, it takes 80ish years instead of 92 minutes. The Final Girls at its best is all about coming to terms with the fleeting nature of life and actually embracing the beauty of that. Though it mainly tries to be a spoof, the film ends up being rather poignant when it wants to be.
If The Final Girls is a disappointment, that’s only because it had so much potential based on its brilliant premise. It could have really delved into the mold of a slasher movie, explored the cliches with a new perspective, and added up to an all time classic on par with The Cabin in the Woods. But the film is instead comfortable cracking easy jokes based on uninteresting observations, and it never ends up being as funny or witty it wants to be. Its emotional impact is greater than its comedic one, though, and for that reason the movie might be worth watching. If only the ending wasn’t so utterly terrible…