The thought occurred during “Final Girls” that perhaps the ability to send up horror might be dying, not because Todd Strauss-Schulson’s very clever horror comedy is evidence of it, but rather due to the seeming inability of filmmakers to look beyond the early 1980s. While the “Scary Movies” did out and out parodies of “Scream,” filmmakers remain more fond of plumbing the Jason/Freddy Krueger-era tropes rather than the more technically accomplished yet equally cheesy films of the ’90s and it seems unlikely the grisly and efficient violence of the “Saw” series will garner the pangs of nostalgia that “Halloween,” with the resourcefulness that led to Michael Myers’ mask being made out of a repurposed visage of William Shatner, has.
Still, with his second feature 18 years after it was thought “Scream” had rewritten the rules for good, Strauss-Schulson has delivered a wildly entertaining and often refreshing take on slasher films. Having last directed “Harold and Kumar”‘s 3D adventure “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas,” he finds dimensionality not in stereoscopy, but instead the story of a group of teens who get trapped inside a “Friday the 13th”-esque flick called “Camp Bloodbath.” Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) is not one of those teens, though when we first meet her, she feels stuck inside the same bubble, having starred in the film decades ago. Like a blood stain that just won’t wash, it follows her on her resume, closing the door on casting sessions before they start, like the one she takes her daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga) to at the start of “The Final Girls.”
Driving back home, Amanda laments her decision to ever star in “Camp Bloodbath,” but Max has little time to commiserate as their car careens into a divide, leaving her mother for dead. Yet when Max is reluctantly dragged three years later to a double feature of “Bloodbath” and its sequel at the local theater by her friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and her “Bloodbath”-obsessed brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), a fire in the house opens up a portal into the film where her mother is every bit as real to her as she once was, albeit in character as Nancy, the virginal camp counselor set to die once she consummates her relationship with a horndog co-worker (Adam Devine).
There are plenty of jokes at the expense of easy targets – the wooden dialogue of cheaply produced gorefests, the narrow stereotypes that often passed for characters in them, and the generation gap between Max and her friends and Nancy and hers, introducing an iPod into the largely technologically-free pasture of Camp Blue Finch. Yet screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller find a relatively unique hook for all of them while adding a genuinely compelling emotional core in Max’s attempts to prevent her mom from dying in front of her eyes again, knowing the plot of “Camp Bloodbath” full well and attempting to rewrite it. She also has a heck of a supporting cast to help her both in the movie-within-the-movie and otherwise, including Shawkat, Middleditch, Alexander Ludwig as her would-be boyfriend Chris, and Nina Dobrev as Vicki, a friend Max distanced herself from after her mother’s death. While each start to fall into familiar genre rhythms themselves, they transcend them both by force of personality and the clear fun they’re all having with Fortin and Miller’s gentle subversions.
Strauss-Schulson brings a slickness to the production that makes it often feel bigger than it is, with plenty of gliding steadicam shots and an unforgiving pace that only stops occasionally for the sake of a gag whether it’s Duncan stopping to demonstrate why he thinks the relentless Jason-like killer Billy Murphy won’t harm anyone but “Camp Bloodbath”‘s preexisting characters or when Tina (Angela Trimbur, who practically steals the film), the likely first counselor to go given her sex drive, dips into Vicki’s supply of adderrall. While it becomes obvious “The Final Girls” was the product of a limited budget, with the visual effects as early as Amanda’s car crash appearing heavily computerized, it’s consistently inventive enough to distract attention away from that fact, throwing everything at its disposal such subtitles and a particularly wicked use of black-and-white flashbacks where their presence in the film actually becomes a significant plot point. Then again, the story seems as if it’d be strong enough to stand on its own without much gimmickry, the enhancement only adding to the energy rather than being relied on for it.
Yet the polish may have one slight drawback – in making the film easily digestible for the widest possible audience, it may annoy hardcore horror lovers who could take issue with its PG-13 level violence and its florid color palette. As edgy as the humor is, the film never feels truly dangerous, though the combined efforts of Strauss-Schulson, Fortin and Miller to work within certain parameters actually appears to have led to more creative solutions rather than dull their blades. Blood may not flow freely in “The Final Girls,” but it is sharp and dazzling nonetheless, the kind of re-engineering of the genre that makes it feel completely new again.
“The Final Girls” does not yet have a release date, but will be distributed by the Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.