SXSW Review: THE FINAL GIRLS

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson offers a loving twist on the slasher.

There’s plenty to like in Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, a perky meta homage to slashers of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s got a lot of heart and a lot of energy, and it’s certainly made by people who love horror.

Taissa Farmiga is Max Cartwright, the daughter of '80s slasher princess Amanda Cartwright, played by Malin Akerman. Amanda was the shy virgin in a camp slasher called "Camp Bloodbath," and decades later she became a loving, single mother to Max and a struggling actress trying to shake off the B-movie brand. But after a car crash leaves Amanda dead, Max is left alone to carry on her memory. Max agrees to attend an anniversary screening of "Camp Bloodbath" on behalf of her mother, but after disaster strikes, she wakes up with her friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Gertie's brother and "Camp Bloodbath" superfan Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), Max's flirt friend Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and Chris' bitchy ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) to discover that they've all been zapped right into the middle of "Camp Bloodbath." Max must try to save her mother from losing her virginity to camp stud Kurt (Adam DeVine) before the masked, disfigured man stalking the camp ends her life once again.

There are many, many references to different horror directors and films: from Argento to The Burning, in addition to the more overt allusions to the Friday the 13th films, and in particular The Final Chapter, it makes The Final Girls a big bag of fright fun. That said, I do wish the film were more focused in its visual cues - with so many references at play, the look of the thing just isn't quite right, not following the vein of camp slashers of the early '80s. Budget is obviously an issue, but the effects are distinctly digital, including a car crash that would have better served the movie offscreen. That Friday the 13th/The Burning look is unmistakable and seemingly pretty easy to replicate, but The Final Girls is much brighter and glossier than those films. And DeVine - an actor I enjoy and find very funny - is the most anachronistic part of The Final Girls. His weird, overconfident bro humor is modern and specific, and just doesn't feel right for the camp jock character of an '80s slasher. 

But those are minor quibbles in a film as fun as The Final Girls, which is full of big laughs and some pretty solid gore. But the best part of the film is a quality that surprised me - the poignancy of the central relationship between Max and Amanda. Farmiga and Akerman are so much the heart of this film, and the movie becomes very unexpectedly about the lengths to which we go to honor the memory of the loved ones we've lost. Akerman gives a great turn as both the wise, older actress/single mother and as the wide-eyed ingenue, utterly convincing as either. And Shawkat continues to remind audiences that she should bring her dry, quirky charisma to just about everything.

The film offers a great bad guy in Dan B. Norris as Billy Murphy, the once-tormented kid in a totem mask who seeks vengeance on the happy hotties working as camp counselors, and the whole thing is filmed at a girl scout camp that looks just exactly right for a camp slasher. It's got some fun, exciting set pieces, including a lightning-lit dance sequence climax that made our audience cheer and also choked me up a bit. The Final Girls is a goofy blast, but it's also a movie that feels, and that makes for quite an unexpected gem. 

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