• Gabe Powers

Final Girls Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)

When Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends reluctantly attend an anniversary screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” the infamous ‘80s horror film that starred Max’s late mother (Malin Akerman), they are mysteriously sucked into the silver screen. They soon realize they are trapped inside the cult classic movie and must team up with the fictional and ill-fated camp counselors, including Max’s mom as the scream queen, to battle the film’s machete-wielding killer. With the body count rising in scene after iconic scene, who will be the final girls left standing and live to escape this film? (From Sony’s official synopsis)



Following a saturation point in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, strictly postmodern horror had a slight die off, barely subsisting on a couple of likable stragglers, like Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011). While post-Saw (2004) slashers and similar movies acknowledged the so-called “rules” of their forebearers, but, for a time, post-millennial horror rarely concerned itself with directly winking and nodding at its audience. Cut to the 2010s and slasher tropes are once again the subject of affectionate ribbing and subversion. Jerome Sable made a musical slasher with Stage Fright (2014), Scott Derrickson’s Sinister (2012) worked the slasher villain formula into a found-footage format, and Glee & American Horror Story creators Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk developed a weekly comedy/horror series called Scream Queens (2015), which premiered around the same time as MTV’s Scream television series (2015). Among these rejuvenated clichés was the Final Girl, so named for the young female that survives the killer(s) attacks with enginuity, unexpected grit, and, in many cases, her puritanical nature. The concept is important to this mini-revival and sits at the heart of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014) and Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes (2014), both of which remodeled the Final Girl in esoteric and existential terms, or Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), which gave her all the tools she needed to MacGyver and Die Hard her way out of a bloody home invasion.


As this new wave of postmodern horror crests, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls (2015) – not to be confused with Tyler Shields’ Final Girl (also starring Alexander Ludwig, funnily enough, 2015), Todd Verow’s The Final Girl (2010), or Jörg Buttgereit’s section of German Angst (titled Final Girl, 2015) – takes perhaps the most flamboyant approach to referential comedy. The ideas and many of the jokes have already been expertly covered, specifically by the Scream movies and Cabin in the Woods. Strauss-Schulson differentiates his joyful little picture with candy-colored imagery, softened PG-13 sex & violence, and a more literal exploration of slasher movie rituals. In Scream, the killers base their murders around the real-world horror movies they love. Behind the Mask exists in a universe where slasher tropes are everyday occurrences. Cabin in the Woods is a mix of the two – the characters acknowledge the familiarity of moviedom as they are systematically recorded for the pleasure of an unknown audience. Final Girls traps its characters in the very fabric (perhaps within the physical celluloid) of a very stereotypical, but ultimately fictional movie and forced to contend with the whims of the film itself. It’s the Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953) version of po-mo horror.



Strauss-Schulson doesn’t stop there, though, and the sheer quantity of options is overwhelming. There are theater-bound scenes that recall Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), a movie in which the on-screen mayhem infects an unsuspecting audience, or John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993), where the protagonist finds himself trapped in a world of Hollywood action clichés. Final Girls also lampoons the obsessive nature of nostalgic fandom types and, like Tarantino & Rodriguez’ Grindhouse (2005), the filmmakers open the movie with a faux trailer for the faux movie the characters find themselves trapped within. Some of this is cute, but a lot of the straight comedy – slapstick, jokes, sight gags – is often more shrill than funny. Mixed within the conceptual overload is the most original idea and the only one with any real emotional impact. Max is able to bond with a version of her dead mother within the film. It’s like Back to the Future (1985), in that she has experience and knowledge that her (faux)mother does not, so she gets to be the “adult” in the situation. In most po-mo horror comedies, the cutaways to mother/daughter bonding would be a waste of time, but, in this context, they’re the heart of the story and are genuinely touching. It helps that Taissa Farmiga and Malin Åkerman fit their roles so well and have so much natural chemistry.


Strauss-Schulson’s career appears to consist of sitcoms and web-series that I don’t watch. His only other feature-length credit is A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), which I also didn’t watch. Those sit-com roots may sound like the least beneficial part of his resume when making a po-mo horror movie, but they seem to have taught him the benefit of brevity and how to build-up charming characters, both of which are vital to overcoming high-concept overload and a few too many unfunny jokes. The digital effects work is awkward as well (the car crash looks like a cartoon), but Strauss-Schulson often covers his lack of budget with braggadocious camera moves and slick editing. For example, there’s a really cool sequence where camera twirls on its axis to demonstrate loop the real-world characters are trapped in (they run through shot and end up back where they started). The PG-13 rating kind of neuters the overall effect, as well. It shouldn’t be surprising, given Strauss-Schulson’s family-friendly television experience, but the Harold & Kumar sequel was R-rated, so naughty language and dirty jokes can’t be completely outside of his comfort zone. Subjectively speaking, a load of silly gore and a smidgen of T&A could’ve easily hammered home some of the weaker slasher-related jokes.



Video

The Final Girls was very obviously shot using digital cameras (probably Red or Alexa) and this 1080p, 2.40:1 Blu-ray transfer reaps the rewards of its mix and match, hyper-synthetic style. Strauss-Schulson and cinematographer Elie Smolkin do use older anamorphic lenses, which offer a sort of film-like contrast structure, but, otherwise, the name of the game is overload. Anything digital footage does well – soft light diffusion, clean edges, glowing primary hues, and smooth gradations – is nicely demonstrated here. There are different environments, timelines, and emotional states that elicit different visual responses. Some scenes are just a little punched-up with candied hues and diffused backlights, some are purposefully marred with faux-print damage, some are black and white, and others burst with so much colour that the characters almost look like they’re acting in front of green screens. The all-around vibrancy and lack of compression noise is very impressive. Details are tight, despite the soft gradations and soft focus backgrounds, thanks in large part to the sharp black levels and aggressive contrast levels.


Audio

The Final Girls is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. This is a very stylized and over-the-top mix, because the movie-within-a-movie motif sort of dictates the need for overblown stereo/surround effects and extreme dynamic scope. There are plenty of big aural highlights – a sudden pre-credit car crash, sundry attempts at booby-trapping the killer, and a lighting storm during the climax – as well as some very loud ‘in-movie’ sounds (like the hyperactive winding of the film at the end). The throwback appeal of Gregory James Jenkins’ analog synth-based score is magnified by the presence of a number of ‘80s pop hits, like Toni Basil’s “Mickey” and Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer.” On the track, the music ebbs and flows with the action and the change-up can be a little annoying, but the wide range is pretty impressive on this track.



Extras

  • Cast & crew commentary – The first commentary track features director Todd Strauss-Schulson, production designer Katie Byron, cinematographer Elie Smolkin, and actors Thomas Middleditch, Taissa Farmiga, and Angela Trimbur. Strauss-Schulson takes the lead in most cases, even acting as moderator/interviewer at times, but there’s only so much he can do to lead the conversation. There’s lots of info blended into the overlapping jokes, especially concerning technical and stylistic choices.

  • Writers’ commentary – The second track features co-producer/co-writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller. This track is a little more focused, including anecdotes about story structure, selling the script to studios (who wanted it to be a romantic situation, rather than a mother/daughter story), and verification of some of the direct references throughout the movie.

  • Nine deleted/extended/alternate scenes, including two different endings, with optional director’s commentary (21:40, HD)

  • Five previsualization reels (5:30, HD)

  • Visual effects progression reel (2:30, HD)

  • Director’s production notes (BD-ROM)



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