Home movies are just one example of an intimate momento to hold onto memories of a loved one after they have passed. Evolving from clunky camcorders to videos stored on smartphones, home movies have always allowed people to revisit sweet moments from the past, and somewhat immortalize friends and family who have passed away. But leaving behind a legacy within a movie is something else entirely. To be left with a loved one forever immortalized on the big screen in the role of a fictional character, where they can be shared among strangers and their memory kept alive, is an odd thing to grapple with. It's this idea that lies under the surface of The Final Girls and both its director and pair of screenwriters were the perfect creative team to pull it off.
The horror-comedy appeared out of nowhere in 2015 and just as quickly disappeared off the radar. There were people who were in the know and realized the rare beast it was and then there were audiences who never got around to watching it upon its release. Here at Collider, Perri Nemiroff wrote up a review on it, highlighting the balancing act of tone, style, and performances, and other critical responses found positives in those areas as well. The Final Girls is about Max Cartwright, played by American Horror Story alum, Taissa Farmiga, a teenager still mourning the death of her actress mother, Amanda (Malin Åkerman of Watchmen). A slight snag in Max's grieving process is the arrival of the anniversary of the slasher flick Amanda had a role in, Camp Bloodbath, the kind of exploitation, low-budget copycat of Friday the 13th that took over movie theaters during the 1980s. Once the rest of the cast is introduced - Nina Dobrev, Alexander Ludwig, Alia Shawkat, and Thomas Middleditch - the film's pacing picks up speed. All of them arrive at the small town theater hosting a special screening of Camp Bloodbath. That is where Max and her friends get sucked into the screen as they try to escape the fire that has broken out. When they wake up, they’re officially in the world of Camp Bloodbath.
After Middleditch’s geeky character times his watch, Max and her friends start to recognize what is going on. The van with excited camp counselors that passes every 92 minutes, is the film restarting from the beginning. But while they all have their individual reactions to this predicament, from the joy of living out a slasher flick to the belief they’re all suffering from a group hallucination, the most powerful reaction comes from Max. Her mom may be gone in the real world but here, she's very much alive in the role of Nancy. Max has a somber reunion with her, where she savors every moment of being close to her without revealing their blood connection. A small problem though is that Nancy is just one of the doomed camp counselors, she is not the film’s final girl. Further from it, Nancy belongs to the victim platter of Camp Bloodbath’s version of Jason Voorhees, named Billy Murphy. So sets into motion the actual story of The Final Girls. It has little to do with being trapped in a slasher movie, and everything to do with being given a second chance with a parent who has passed away.
In playing Nancy, Åkerman looks and sounds like Max's mom, but there are enough differences in mannerisms to alert Max that this is only a movie character. Despite this, Max resolves to do whatever she can to keep her “mom” alive until the credits roll. That means saving her from the moment of her original death, altering the formulaic plot at play in Camp Bloodbath. Think back to Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th. How many of the female characters survived to the end in those? There is only one final girl to fight back against the slasher villain. But Max persists and with her friends, they continue to fudge up the logic of the film, inadvertently causing the death of Camp Bloodbath’s actual final girl. Things get even messier from there.
One by one, Nancy’s fellow counselors and Max’s friends get knocked off by Billy. As the victim count rises and the number of survivors grows more limited, Max realizes her next dilemma. In the end, it’ll have to either be her mother or herself that survive Billy’s wrath, it cannot be both. What makes the decision more impossible, is that Max has become so attached to Nancy that she tells her the truth and makes a promise. Once they make it to the credits, maybe just maybe they’ll be a way to pull Nancy out of the film similar to how Max got sucked in. But it’s all wish fulfillment. Max is mortally wounded and Nancy deduces the only way for her “daughter” to live, is if she sacrifices herself. In a strangely heartwarming scene, she steps outside into an ethereal fog, starts to dance, and strips off her shirt to lure Billy with the promiscuity that characters in slasher movies were targeted for. Making it all the more emotional, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes is heard, the very song Max and her real mom Amanda made into their family anthem out in the real world. Once Nancy is killed, Max’s wounds are healed up thanks to the slasher formula of a single final girl being restored. She defeats Billy and when the credits roll, Nancy awakens to find her friends alive. That's all good, except they haven’t returned home, and the film sets up for a potential sequel to follow the events of Camp Bloodbath 2: Cruel Summer.
Director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, came on board to the project, understanding too well that The Final Girls was so much more than a horror satire. The story of parental loss resonated with him. “It was a really bad-ass, cool, funny, big movie concept but the thing that really hooked me was that emotional core. It was personal for me because my father had passed away four weeks before I started working on my first movie,” he explained in an interview with Vulture. He went on to describe the many dreams he had of his father during that period in his life, in a way, the dreams being his own second chances. He added, “When I read the script for Final Girls, I was like, ‘I know what this is. It’s a kid’s second chance to be with her parent in the middle of a dream.’"
While the idea of making it all a dream for Max, subconsciously earning a final farewell to her mother, didn’t make it onscreen, Strauss-Schulson wasn't the only individual with similar thoughts on it. Poking fun at the slasher film camp setting and the character tropes associated with it, The Final Girls was the brainchild of screenwriters and couple, Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin. In an interview with the website Creative Screenwriting, Miller stated, "Our idea writing it was always that Max was having a strange out-of-body experience or was in a coma and this was all within her mind, heart, and soul about resolving the grief about the loss of her mother." The moment Max wakes up, in the end, to find her friends alive and well, could bring to mind the ending to The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 fantasy classic even proved influential for director Strauss-Schulson, though more aesthetically than thematically. In talking to SlashFilm, he went on to say, "The idea was more like they just get sucked into a movie, not necessarily a horror movie. So it's more like The Wizard of Oz. They get sucked into a technicolor dream world where everything gets to be hyper-real."
In the same interview with Creative Storytelling, Miller explained how the horror subgenre was introduced during the early brainstorming sessions for the script. “We decided we were going to tell a story about death, and we were interested in talking about it in the world of the slasher film where death is totally cheap and there’s no such thing as mourning or real human relationships.” Another piece of inspiration was already secured way before the writing began, stemming from a personal place in the life of the screenwriter. Like Strauss-Schulson, Miller lost a parent too.
His father was none other than late actor, Jason Miller, immortalized onscreen in The Exorcist as Father Karras. Like Nancy, Karras is predestined to a grim fate once their respective films hit the “play” button. Miller lost his father in 2001, and having The Exorcist hold his father forever within itself, Miller understood just how weird of an experience it was like Max had in Camp Bloodbath. Miller's father had fans, people who would keep his cinematic legacy alive but that didn't mean they knew the actor. But what if Miller could travel inside the iconic possession film and interact with his late father? Wanting to explore such a potential encounter, Miller and his partner, Fortin, went to work, purposely aiming for a fictional narrative rather than resembling anything too close to nonfiction. In doing so, the original screenplay relied on a heap of violence and the atmosphere was far darker than the final result. It was supposed to belong to the horror genre, after all. Restrictions were placed on them from higher-ups, making them tone everything down, although it might have been what was needed to help emphasize the story arc between Max and Nancy.
In a review from AV Club, the film was concluded as being, "a semi-crude and not especially scary horror-comedy with some real emotional depth." The film may not be “scary” but that is its secret weapon. In placing a parent-child relationship as its center and with all kinds of dread pushed aside, there was so much poignancy to be felt. Slasher films are fun, harmless shlock most of the time. Only a select few attempt to dive deep into the human emotions of such a wildly unhinged event. In their own way, both Strauss-Schulson and Miller essentially stamped a memorial of their lost parent onto the production. This is why The Final Girls is so much more than the horror-comedy hybrid it's initially premised as. It has a deeply affecting message on wish fulfillment, second chances, and the bond between a parent and child. Onscreen and behind the scenes, the theme of family legacy truly deserved a better focus over the satirical elements critical reviews narrowed in on. Home movies and saved iPhone footage/photos are a candid keepsake and the personal experiences Strauss-Schulson and Miller injected into their storytelling proved to be just as candid. They used the cinematic medium to reflect on their grief, all the while ensuring The Final Girls got to be a revamped, refreshing entry among slasher films, and one that is a unique watch for audiences who believe they may have seen it all.
Warning: Masked killers and scream queens await.
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