SXSW film review: “The Final Girls” is a brilliant, emotional satire of classic slasher films

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As Joss Whedon’s “Cabin in the Woods” has proven, the concept of a “meta-horror film” works. Scary movies that satirize the silly tropes from classic slasher films, such as the dumb, horny teenagers practically asking to be murdered, are growing in popularity because of their witty humor. “The Final Girls” doesn’t just follow in“Cabin”'s footprints  it surpasses it. With its hilarious insight into campy horror flicks and its strong, emotional characters, “The Final Girls” exceeds expectations of a growing genre.

After high school student Max (Taissa Farmiga) loses her mother (Malin Akerman), a former “scream queen” in a famous '80s slasher flick, she slowly deals with the pain for a number of years. When she attends a special screening of her mom’s famous film with her friends, including her crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig), they are magically transported into the film. Discovering that her mother is alive in the film’s world, Max sees an opportunity to reconnect with her. But, of  course, the entire group is pursued by a machete-wielding villain, and they must find a way to destroy the killer and get back home.

The way director Todd Strauss-Schulson incorporates nostalgia and visual humor is remarkable. No classic horror trope is safe. The haunted camp setting allows all sorts of opportunities, and Strauss-Schulson makes use of all of them. The stereotypical cast for the film-within-the-film cleverly overacs and paint their obnoxious characters as helpless nimrods. Even subtle details found in the genre, such as the corny use of flashbacks, are used for comedy gold. The delivery for every joke is perfect. Although it pays tribute to all the great slasher films, it manages to stay original and never gets bogged down in references.

Although the film’s cast are obviously paying homage to classic teenage stereotypes found in horror films, they manage to make their performances emotional. Farmiga is stunning as the heroine. Akerman is funny, but she knows how to carry the more poignant moments with her daughter.

The rest of the cast is great, except for the villain of the film. This hulking menace is clearly modeled after the hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, and he possesses no characteristics that help him become his own original character. Even if the film is mostly a homage to “Friday the 13th,” it would have been nice to see more creativity put into the killer.

The film is hilarious, but it's also surprisingly tear jerking at times because of the strong relationship between Max and her mother. In the first five minutes, Strauss-Schulson builds their bond and makes us believe in it. Every scene they share is the most dramatic and heartwarming in the movie. It’s also somewhat heartbreaking, as it becomes clear that Max may not be able to save her mother’s character from her grisly faith.

Simply put, “The Final Girls” is a near-masterpiece of a horror-comedy. Its meta-humor never gets excessive or obnoxious. It addresses all the important constructs that makeup a scary movie. The film goes further by focusing on emotion and relationships. The characters play into their expected roles, as the teens on the slaughtering table play the part brilliantly, managing to make them memorable. As more comedic films appear to mock old traditions of other movies, it’s clear that they definitely need to look toward “The Final Girls” for inspiration.

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Genre: Horror-Comedy

Runtime: 88 minutes

Rating: 9/10 Dead Teenagers