There's a new kind of horror comedy film in town that balances scary storyline with tongue-in-cheek critiques of the genre. Using horror’s natural antithesis, comedy, to deflate the threat of monsters and boogeymen, it’s also opened up the writing to comment on the tropes viewers know well: Kinky teens are killed first in slasher flicks, the last virginal girl to survive is the one to kill the killer, and so on.
That’s not to say horror comedy is new. From “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” to Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” movies have spoofed what scared audiences for the majority of film history. However, many of those movies were riffs on specific monsters or stories; they didn't poke fun at themes now recognized as part of the horror genre.
Around the time of the horror movie mixtape “Scary Movie,” filmmakers began to toy more with horror-movie conventions and dig deeper into storytelling. Like a mixtape, they would combine movie references to convey an overall message about the genre as a whole. Edgar Wright played with the notion of how an average bumbling bloke would respond to the zombie apocalypse in “Shaun of the Dead.” In the Joss Whedon/Drew Goddard-penned “The Cabin in the Woods,” the writers made revealing their characters’ archetypes a part of the plot. It wasn’t tied to a specific monster or killer, but to the numerous similar films that codified the meaning of a zombie movie or a cabin-in-the-woods movie.
Now in Todd Strauss-Schulson’s “The Final Girls,” we have a brilliant homage to '70s and '80s slasher films in the bloody vein of “Sleepaway Camp,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween.”
After losing her former “scream queen” mother (Malin Akerman) in a terrible accident, Max (Taissa Farmiga) is struggling to move on when a distant friend invites her to a screening of her mother’s most famous role in a campground horror movie. When a freak accident causes Max and her friends to flee through a tear in the movie screen, they find themselves on the very campgrounds the movie is based in. Now they must survive a maniacal mass murderer (and '80s sexism) in order to make it back home. A simple premise complicated by the presence of Max’s mom in the movie within a movie.
Director Strauss-Schulson lays the horror-movie references on thick. Masked murderer? Check. Flat characters? Check. Groan-inducing dialogue? Check. The movie within a movie that only runs 92 minutes? That’s there too.
Farmiga plays the exasperated, unwilling participant until it’s clear there’s a murderer on his way to get them, complete with synth sound effects to announce his arrival. Farmiga’s Max and Nina Dobrev’s mean girl, Vicki, have a contentious relationship over boy-toy Chris (Alexander Ludwig), which further complicates survival planning. Step-siblings Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) provide comic relief and some horror movie survival tips. The supporting cast really sells “The Final Girls” and keeps the laughs going throughout, reacting to horror movie tropes like slow-motion and black and white flashback sequences.
“The Final Girls” is a movie treat for longtime horror-genre fans and occasional moviegoers alike. You don’t need to understand every “Sleepaway Camp” reference to laugh throughout the film, as much of the humor is based on genre generalizations. The writing, editing, synth soundtrack and low-budget look capture the era to comedic effect, framing it for modern-day outsiders to have their laugh. “The Final Girls” is a nostalgic love letter the ways we were scared way back when and how we can laugh at it all now.
A theatrical release date has yet to be announced for “The Final Girls." SXSW Film Festival runs through Sunday. Follow the rest of my South by Southwest coverage on Twitter at @mcastimovies.