The Final Girls
It often happens that a young director who has made a relatively small, independent but smart and stylish film gets noticed on the festival circuit, and subsequently hired to more-or-less remake that film – or at least refashion its central concept in a far more mainstream context. That’s what occurred, for instance, with Vincenzo Natali, whose clever, conceptual, low-budget sci-fi piece Cube (1997) led to assignments on Cypher (2002) and the crazy genetic-fantasia Splice (2009). In almost every case, we are left wondering what’s been gained and what’s been lost in this process of adaptation and career mobility.
When I saw Isn't It Romantic (2019) – about a young woman “trapped in a typical romantic comedy” – I didn’t know that director Todd Strauss-Schulson had, effectively, already done this idea, and done it better, in The Final Girls. What led me to it was, in fact, another connection: it’s written by Joshua John Miller (with partner M.A. Fortin) who, as an actor, was such a remarkable angry-queer-child presence in the 1980s cult classics, River's Edge (1986) and Near Dark (1987), and today works as a writer-producer in cinema and TV.
The ‘80s teen movie reference indeed looms large in The Final Girls, but it’s skewed less to “dark side” Gothic material than to schlocky slasher-horror films of the Friday the 13th and Halloween ilk already being sent up rotten by the start of that decade in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) – and here inevitably caked in those digitised signs of a bashed-up-old-print that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez manufactured for their Grindhouse (2007) duet.
The premise here is simple: adolescent Max (Taissa Farmiga) is close to her single Mom, Amanda (Malin Åkerman from TV’s Billions) – an actor cursed by her cult-fame, way back when, achieved in a trashy film titled Camp Bloodbath. After Amanda dies in a car accident, Max “shuts down” emotionally, but when (years later) she agrees to attend a yuck-yuck local screening of Camp Bloodbath, she finds herself in the middle of a blazing catastrophe at the theatre – and then, alongside her gang of friends, right in the middle of Camp Bloodbath itself. Trapped in a typical slasher flick! And one that is complete with an obligatory deranged, traumatised and masked villain wielding a machete, Billy (Daniel Norris) – as well as a nod to Carol J. Clover’s attractive theory of the “final girl” as laid out in the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992).
I referred to Isn’t It Romantic as a “fuzzy” conceit in the roughly metaleptic format ushered into popular cinema by Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) – which, already, played fast and loose with the supposed rules of such a game, in the manner of a playful, surrealistic thought-experiment. The Final Girls, which is certainly snappier and a lot more fun than Isn’t It Romantic, also leads us to ponder the typically fuzzy cloud of speculative manœuvres that gather over the grand metaleptic question: “What would it mean for one group of fictional characters – its ‘real’ people – to actually live inside a movie designated as plastic, cheap, vulgar, unreal, two-dimensional, etc?” There are at least four possible answers, and the film shifts between these levels more-or-less at will (as most films of this type do):
1. Camp Bloodbath is a complete, three-dimensional “fictional world” – a diegesis – that unfolds itself, on a loop, every 92 minutes. It has hidden spaces (a mysterious cabin) and tracks leading to and from the central location (the camp) but, in this version, it’s essentially like the ever-repeating hologram of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ great (and incredibly influential) novel, Morel’s Invention (1940). The film-within-film characters therefore are “condemned” to always say and do the same things, over and over, and never go off-script. Each one rigidly performs his or her own fixed, generic “type”: the horny slut strips and grinds, the horny dude propositions every girl in the most vulgar fashion.
2. Camp Bloodbath has a “script”, but the newcomers – Max and her friends – can interact with and alter the destinies of its characters. This is how Max comes to arrive at a tender reunion with the celluloid-spectre of her mother – a preview here of the more laboured “coming to love yourself” theme of Isn’t It Romantic (which, by the way, has a less funny part for Adam DeVine, the 2D dude who gets a lot of play in the end-credits blooper reel here).
3. Camp Bloodbath is not a single, fixed story but the instance of a genre – and hence “playable” according to the gory conventions of that genre (eg., “only a virgin can be the Final Girl”), which can (sometimes) be thwarted or subverted, but will just as often reassert their power of “destiny”. (The philosophic worry-bead of freedom vs. predestination is never far from such narrative conceits, just as it haunts time-travel and future-premonition tales.) This is the Wes Craven Scream (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011) legacy, as well as bearing a trace of the true Daddy of these games in 21st century pop cinema, Joseph Kahn’s sublime Detention (2011). There are Kahn, Rodriguez or McG-type stylistic flourishes here too, especially in the sweeping digital animation effects that conjure a flash-fire or a balletic machete fight.
4. Camp Bloodbath is, materially, a film, i.e., if you’re “in” it and it turns black-and-white, then you’re black-and-white too. Does this mean our “real” characters will negotiate and play (as in a Raśl Ruiz special) with découpage edits, story ellipses, off-screen spaces, and a soundtrack? Not much of that, alas. There is a voice-over in the sky during a flashback (Amanda pines: “Is that how I sound?”). And certain special effects are, cleverly and nuttily, “diegetised”: the wavy flashbacks begin with gooey stalactites oozing down from the ceiling and enveloping figures before whisking them away to the past; the expository graphic intertitle “Summer 1957” becomes literally a clunky sculpture in the set that characters physically knock over; 1980s credits (with appropriately chosen font) roll up behind and above the landscape where our heroes stand at the end.
What The Final Girls has that Isn’t It Romantic lacks is, quite simply, the wherewithal to move somewhere, to fiddle with the premise a little, every 10 or 15 minutes. This allows, among other good jokes, a final twist that can probably be easily guessed well in advance, but it suckered me just fine.