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Though terror and laughter really exist on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, there is a storied and wonderful history between the two in the world of cinema. From Evil Dead II to Dead Alive to Shaun of the Dead, there is a long legacy of horror and comedy working together at the movies, and while it’s a tricky mash-up to master, history as shown that when done well, it can be insanely entertaining. With his new film The Final Girls, director Todd Strauss-Schulson is the latest to try and tackle a mix of the two desperate genres, and while it may not necessarily a movie that can be dubbed an instant classic, it is a fantastically entertaining bit of meta fun.
Centering on a teenage girl named Max (Taissa Farmiga), the story picks up three years after the death of her mother (Malin Akerman), an actress who famously once starred in a ludicrous ‘80s horror movie called Camp Bloodbath. Though Max is still struggling to cope with the loss of her mom, she winds up being goaded into attending a special screening of the film, organized by her best friend’s step-brother (Thomas Middleditch) – and while the night starts out pretty horrifically, with the theater catching on fire during an accident, things only get much worse from that point forward. Along with the aforementioned step-brother , her best friend (Alia Shawkat), the boy she has a crush on (Alexander Ludwig), and his bitchy ex-girlfriend (Nina Dobrev), Max tries to escape the cinema by slashing through the silver screen. Unfortunately, this action winds up dropping the group right inside the plot of Camp Bloodbath, where they must not only try to get back home, but evade the movie’s murderous psychopath villain.
As satire that also happens to serve as a love letter, elements of The Final Girls are certainly derivative, and the concept of being sucked into a movie isn’t unique, but Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin earn it simply by doing a thorough and fun job establishing the specific "rules" of the cinematic world that the characters enter into. More than just hammering away at the ‘80s slasher character and plot tropes that all cinefiles love to poke fun at, the film also incorporates its hyper-meta approach to the visual style as well, doing really wonderful things with elements like flashbacks, musical cues, title cards, slow motion, and the fact that the leads can’t do anything to escape this waking nightmare until they complete the fictional story arc that they are stuck in.
As far as the balance between the scares and the laughs is concerned, the latter definitely outweighs the former – as the movie doesn’t really go for anything too over-the-top shocking or terrifying (potentially because it seems the production was shooting for a PG-13 rating). But while audiences won’t be forced to watch certain segments of the feature from between their fingers, that doesn’t mean that The Final Girls doesn’t deliver with some gnarly action. Gore is kept to a minimum, but that doesn’t ever prevent the filmmakers from still finding some really fantastic ways to kill their characters that can be met with a mix of laughter and "ooooh" sounds – with one of the most notable moments in this regard coming thanks to an unfortunately-placed bear trap. Horror fans hungry for blood and gore may be a tad disappointed, but there’s more than enough in the film to make up for it.
The Final Girls boils down to being a strange cross between Cabin in the Woods, Friday the 13th and Last Action Hero, and it’s an equation that adds up to a ridiculous and fun flick that’s a blast to watch with an enthusiastic audience (which its SXSW premiere most definitely delivered). An R-rating would have been nice to make the homage more complete, there are certain moments that drag, but ultimately its great execution of a high-concept script that should appeal to all genre fans.