The Final Girls
"Everyone who has sex in this movie dies," points out the nerdy smartass Duncan (played by Thomas Middleditch) in The Final Girls, capitalizing on the horror movie trope the film is named after. Genre fans will be familiar, but for those not in the know, the "final girl," coined by writer and film professor Carol J. Clover in 1992, refers to, quite literally, the final girl left in slasher flicks—the one who survives and fights the villain at the end (see: Laurie in Halloween, Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.). One of the notable characteristics of a final girl is that she's virginal, unlike her promiscuous friends. It's a known horror movie formula that the slutty friends always die first. The virgin survives. Thus, to Duncan's point: Everyone who has sex in the movie dies.
It's this idea that becomes the butt of basically every joke in The Final Girls, and boy, it is exhausting. "You just messed with the wrong virgin" is one of the first lines of the film, uttered by Paula (Chloe Bridges), who plays the final girl in the movie-within-a-movie, Camp Bloodbath. (Perhaps there's an intentional layer to this joke, which is that Chloe Bridges, who played the hot mean girl in The Carrie Diaries, is not a very believable Resident Virgin.) The premise itself is beyond ridiculous: On the one-year anniversary of the death of her mother (Malin Akerman), teen girl Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends—BFF Gertie (Alia Shawkat), hunky crush Chris (Alexander Ludwig), mean girl Vicki (Nina Dobrev), and aforementioned nerdy smartass Duncan—begrudgingly attend a screening of the '80s slasher flick her mother starred in. In Camp Bloodbath, Akerman plays Nancy, the shy girl next door who gets slain shortly after her deflowering. After a series of unfortunate drunk and high mishaps from the rowdy audience, the theater catches fire, which leads Max and co. to escape through the screen. But instead of getting out, they end up inside the movie, all the way back in 1986.
This is where The Final Girls gets into extremely meta levels of horror comedy. Except, that's a format already perfected by Wes Craven's Scream series and Joss Whedon's Cabin in the Woods (the latter does a much better job poking fun at the whole virgin thing, without making a spectacle of it). Following Craven and Whedon, Todd Strauss-Schulson's The Final Girls would have to pull some insanely innovative shit to stand out with these modern classics. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't.)
The teen gang soon comes to realize that they're in a movie, which, for geeky Duncan, is totally jizz-your-pants-worthy, but for Max, is rather heavy emotionally. She gets to see her deceased mother again, in the flesh, except it's not really her and she's 20 years younger than she last remembers her—and it obviously completely freaks her out. Another twist: Even though Camp Bloodbath initially sticks exactly to the script, Max and her friends are not safe passersby. They can interact with the characters in the movie, change the course of the plot, and can be murdered by the film's villain, Billy Murphy. Once they realize that no one is safe and that the only escape out of the movie is to kill Billy, the movie finally gets going—to a degree (after all, this is still a PG-13 movie).
The film does have some funny, redeeming qualities, though (emphasis on horror comedy, as it is rarely really horrifying). The fake '80s movie is, like, painfully '80s, with B horror quality jokes that'll have you cringe-laughing. "The writing is so bad," points out Duncan once again (he's that guy in the movie who explains what's going to happen). They also get pretty clever with the meta aspect: The film's title cards are as concrete as solid brick, while flashback origin stories turn the setting to black and white. Then there are the characters: Adam DeVine's horndog character Kurt is hilarious in his over-the-top masculinity-flexing and eagerness to hump any girl in sight. DeVine plays up gross all too well (dropping casual anti-feminist and homophobic remarks—because, hey, terrible '80s movie!). The other stand-out character is its Resident Slut, Tina (Angela Trimbur), who, in order to survive, needs to have her hands duct-taped together so she doesn't take off her clothes and get into any sexy shenanigans. Ridiculous, yes, but Tina is a riot. (There's also a hilarious striptease scene that had me cackling in my seat to look forward to.) Nancy keeps referring to herself as "the shy girl with the clipboard and the guitar" while Tory N. Thompson's Blake serves as the token black guy slash artsy alt boy. Ironically, the original final girl, Paula, is the least memorable of the bunch. These caricatures show how predictably formulaic slasher film characters are, and to that extent, The Final Girls is somewhat effective.
Still, after the umpteenth virgin joke and all those eye-roll-inducing hyper-meta comments (at one point, Nina Dobrev says, "I'm a mean girl in a '80s horror movie, I'd say I've overstayed my welcome"), The Final Girls doesn't really do anything new for the genre. Its incessant mocking of the tired formula becomes annoyingly try-hard, whereas smart horror films of the recent past have already flipped the script and done a much better job of it. Scream's Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) becomes a final girl despite having sex, and this year's It Follows—about a sexually transmitted haunting—throws that idea completely out the window. And both of those movies achieve what a horror movie actually should: They're both pretty scary. The downfall of The Final Girls is that it pretty much becomes the tired thing it makes fun of. And it doesn't do much for thrills.