Todd Strauss-Schulson

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

 

(Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema)

In “A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas,” the eponymous duo reunite for more slapstick, raunchy stoner humor and encounters with a satirical Neil Patrick Harris. The Daily Texan spoke with Todd Strauss-Schulson, who directed the third film in the franchise as his first feature project.

Daily Texan: So how did you get involved with this project?

Todd Strauss-Schulson: I’ve never made a movie before. This is my first movie. But I’ve wanted to make a movie my whole life, and I made short films in high school obsessively, and went to film school in Boston and came to L.A. to make music videos thinking if I could make music videos, I’d be able to get into features. Music videos had died two years before I moved to Los Angeles. There was no more money in it, and it was a disaster. I spent three and a half years trying to become a successful music video director so I could transition into film like Michael Bay or David Fincher or one of those guys, and it never worked out. I quit music videos and had three years of super odd stuff. I shot virals for chewing tobacco companies and behind-the-scenes footage for things, and I was in Asia for a while doing a reality show for MTV.

DT: Were there any challenges coming onto an established franchise?

Strauss-Schulson: You wanted it to be good for the fans because it has such an intense fanbase. I’m part of the fanbase! The first movie, I found in college, stoned with my friends. The second movie I saw opening night in theaters. I really wanted to book and make the movie because all I could picture myself opening night not wanting to be bummed out by the third movie in the franchise. I very much had the idea of an audience member in mind while making it. Like, what would happen if I’m bored while I’m watching it? How crazy do I want this to get? How much shit do I want coming out at my face in 3D? I wanted to please an audience member.

DT: Well, in the sequel, you have them escaping from Guantanamo Bay, but in this one, they have to find a Christmas tree. But this one got way crazier.

Strauss-Schulson: It’s like a romantic comedy, where they’re not friends anymore, they have to learn how to become friends again, so even if the stakes aren’t as high because they’re not going to Guantanamo and having to eat a cock-meat sandwich, there are stakes. And so there was a lot of attention paid, and John [Cho] and Kal [Penn] wanted to talk a lot about that stuff and make that stuff really work. Some of what we’ve heard from our test views is that people who have grown up with the characters like that.

DT: Tell me about the Claymation sequence.

Strauss-Schulson: We hired this company LAIKA who did “Coraline” and “Nightmare Before Christmas” out of Portland and they did it, which is also crazy. The idea was, could you make a really gory, blood, action-packed, aggressive spectacle with cotton balls and adorable characters? It’s cute, but it’s also aggressive. That kind of friction was something that was in the whole movie. Can it be festive and cheery and Christmasy but also godless and raunchy and disgusting simultaneously?

DT: Were you ever worried the movie would go too far in either direction?

Strauss-Schulson: Not really. I wanted it to be sentimental at the end. The original concept, at least for me, was, besides Harold and Kumar hijack a Christmas movie, is can you make a Trojan Horse movie? On the outside, it is beautiful and feels elegant and looks like “Miracle on 34th Street.” The music is sentimental and sounds like a John Williams “Home Alone” score. Really, on the inside, it’s disgusting and raunchy.

DT: What were some of the challenges and benefits of working in 3D?

Strauss-Schulson: I loved the idea of doing the movie in 3D. That was part of the original script. I didn’t realize that when I first read it, but they told me when I went in and I was like, “What a gimmick. That sucks.” And then I thought, “What a gimmick! That could be awesome!” It became really exciting to think of ways to do jokes in 3D and ways to rachet up ridiculous scenes using that technology, ways to do really raunchy, dirty stuff, but in technically sophisticated ways. Shooting in 3D takes a little longer. The cameras are massive, they don’t do great in the cold. It limits the amount that you can really move a camera around. You can’t do snap-zooms, you can’t whip things around. It was cumbersome. It was also hard for comedy. I like to shoot with two or three cameras. They can improv and you can capture reactions to hilarious things when they only happen once. You can catch lightning in a bottle.

DT: What’s your favorite use of 3D?

Strauss-Schulson: I really love the dildo in “Jackass 3D.” Pretty great 3D moment. My favorite 3D gag in “Harold and Kumar?” That’s the first time I’ve been asked that. I love the egg-tion. I made a short, an egg-tion short instead of an action short, and I pilfered that to put in the movie.

DT: I love the cameos from small character actors. You have Elias Koteas, and Danny Trejo.

Strauss-Schulson: Those were the best. They were the most fun guys to deal with. I love Robert Rodriguez the most. I know he’s local. Ever since high school, I’ve wanted to be him.

DT: With Neil Patrick Harris, are you worried to go too meta or too crazy, or is that the point of his character?

Strauss-Schulson: It’s the point of his character. They can do anything. The movie is already bipolar. It fits and starts and is big and small, but then Neil shows up and it really can open it up. The musical number became a showstopper, I loved the idea of having Neil singing and dancing in 3D, which seemed like kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you do a complete showstopper, and the movie just stops for two minutes. So that was something that was fun to do with him. He can do anything in these movies, and he loves it.

DT: I feel like the first two movies had more of a focus on Harold and Kumar’s race. This one didn’t as much.

Strauss-Schulson: That’s a Jon and Hayden thing. The first one is all about race. The second one is about race but also gets political. Guantanamo and George Bush and all that stuff. They didn’t want to repeat themselves, so I think this one was really more going after religion a little bit, Christmas especially. Each movie has its own little world.

DT: Is there gonna be a fourth one?

Strauss-Schulson: I don’t know. I have no idea. But I hope there is. I wanna see it!