The Final Girls (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s difficult for me to speak objectively about The Final Girls‘  merits as a horror comedy, because so much of the film’s content is so distinctly in my wheelhouse. It’s also difficult to describe the film’s high-concept premise without spoiling its major conceit. So, I’ll just leave you with this vague recommendation for now: if you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. Save reading reviews (like this one, for instance) for after you give the film a chance. It’s best to go into this movie cold if you can manage it. I wish I had, anyway.

For those who need a little more convincing up front, here’s a quick run-down of the film’s premise. The Final Girls revolves around a fictional example of the oldschool “camp site slashers” mentioned above named Camp Bloodbath. Good title. When Camp Bloodbath is first introduced as a Grindhouse-style trailer on a smart phone, it’s unclear exactly how involved the plot will get with the horror relic. The answer is very. Five modern teens with varying degrees of familiarity with the film find themselves magically transplanted inside the move itself, à la The Last Action Hero. Don’t spend too much time questioning exactly how this could possibly happen, because the movie has very little interest in providing an answer. Instead, the device is used as a launchpad for lovingly spoofing the slasher genre from a modern perspective. It’s a means to a satisfying end.

As you can tell from The Final Girls‘ title, the film has a lot of fun playing with slasher genre tropes, especially in the film’s interactions between the self-aware modern teens & the fictional teen camp counselors at Camp Bloodbath. A lot of the teens’ plans to escape the machete-wielding Billy Murphy, a Jason Voorhees stand-in, revolves around abstaining from sex. The thinking is that teen sex invariably ends in death in oldschool slashers, which is something even the Friday the 13th series itself mocks in the humorously self-aware hologram scene in Jason X. The Final Girls also pokes fun at how teen dialogue is often moronic in oldschool slashers, like when an 80s teen tells a modern visitor, “Go suck a turd,” and he amusedly replies, “The writing is so bad.” Another modern character comments on her soon-to-end shelf life with the line, “I’m the mean girl in the 80s horror movie & we’re past the midpoint so . . .” There’s also attention paid to Camp Bloodbath‘s over-the-top John Carpenter score, the fact that cheap horror films can sometimes head to career-long typecasting, and the fact that there is often a very fine line between a slasher & a porno. The genre trope references are nothing if not relentless.

One of my favorite things about The Final Girls is that it not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of the film’s outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly comedy, it does reach for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit. As the modern teens attempt to escape their fictional prison they discover that all roads lead back to camp. In their words, “The movie won’t let us leave.” As a result, they find themselves stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque 90min loop until they can fulfil the slasher genre’s plot cycle to its conclusion, including establishing which virginal “final girl” would will remain alive to slay Not Jason at the film-within-the-film’s conclusion. There’s also a creepy interplay in the way exact dialogue from Camp Bloodbath bleeds over into “real life” conversation & in the way the 80s camp counselors are ritually devoted to their cues in certain scenes. Not all of the world-building is creepy, though. Just as the The Final Girls pokes fun at the predictability of horror movie tropes, it also mines humor from the artificiality of more general cinematic devices like black & white flashbacks, slow-motion escapes, and the physical appearance of production credits.

The reason I said earlier that I couldn’t be objective about The Final Girls as a finished product is that I recognize the film has some glaring faults, but I greatly enjoyed it anyway. Its straight-forward Jokes aren’t always as laugh-out-loud funny as they’re posed to be. The rules of its universe are more fluid & self-contradictory than they should be.  There’s also an unfortunate mount of weak CG imagery, which would normally be excusable in a cheap indie like this, except that the film calls direct attention to it in over-the-top Sam Raimi-style camera movement. However, that last complaint might be a little particular to my tastes, since I’m far from an Evil Dead fan. These are minor speed bumps for me, though, since so much of what’s going on in The Final Girls I’m already predisposed to enjoy. Not only am I a sucker for high-concept camp, but the movie features features contributions from a handful of minor personalities that I’m always down to watch in action: Alia “Maeby Fünke” Shawkat, Thomas “Silicon Valley” Middleditch, Joshua John “Teen Witch/Near Dark/Class of 1999” Miller (as a writer/producer), etc. The film’s 80s pop music cues also hit my sweet spot, including expert use of “Dance Hall Days“, “Cruel Summer“, and the most emotionally confusing “Bette Davis Eyes” strip tease you’re ever likely to see. There’s also a great deal of heart in the main protagonist’s personal relationship with one of the fictional 80s teens, one that’s particularly refreshing in its emotional severity considering the detached irony of a lot of the film’s meta humor.

Because so much of The Final Girls lines up with any particular interests it is difficult to say whether or not a majority of people will be able to get on its wavelength. I can, however, say this much in the movie’s behalf: audiences typically too squeamish for the slasher genre should be able to stomach the film’s limited gore, as it’s played for laughs more so than terror. I’m not sure that crowd will get as much out of the film’s trope play as the genre’s more dedicated fans, but as I said earlier, there’s plenty else going on to satiate anyone in the mood for a high-concept comedy with an occasional note of devastating heartbreak. If nothing else, The Final Girls will make an excellent compromise for those looking to introduce the horror comedy genre to the less-than-enthused. I expect it’ll make good fodder for many Halloween-themed movie binges in the years to come, perhaps sandwiched between the very “camp site slasher films” it lovingly spoofs.

-Brandon Ledet

Wes Craven’s Crown Jewel: New Nightmare (1994)

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Just two weeks ago, we lost a cinematic great who was often overlooked for his accomplishments as an auteur, perhaps due to his extensive work in genre films. Wes Craven may have made an occasional goofy trifle like a Shocker or a Swamp Thing, but his more accomplished films have unmistakably reshaped the horror landscape in a significant way. I don’t have much of a stomach for them myself, but his early works The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House on the Left rang out like the enraged, too-believable battle cries of a deeply disturbed mind eager to unleash its violent cravings upon the world at large. Honing in that anger for something more purposeful & universally palatable, Craven later scared the every living shit out of mainstream audiences with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did for the simple act of falling asleep what Jaws did for nightswimming. Craven’s instantly infamous Freddy Krueger creation, brought to disturbingly vivid life by actor Robert Englund, would’ve been enough to coast on for the rest of the director’s life, but instead Craven broke out into more surreal territory with The Serpent & The Rainbow, political satire in The People Under the Stairs, and the very nature of horror as a genre in the meta franchise Scream, among other projects. Craven was an inventive fella, to put it mildly. He was enthusiastic about exploring new, strange ideas that would allow his demented id to escape from his mild-mannered exterior, scaring his audience while simultaneously challenging them in unexpectedly intellectual ways, the latter being something a lot of horror peddlers don’t bother with often enough.

My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. The Scream franchise introduces its meta context by having the typical bonehead slasher victims be atypically self-aware of classic horror film tropes that usually lead to violent deaths, allowing for them to make commentary on the very film that they populate (eventually with their lifeless bodies). However, thanks to the dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare allows itself even more free rein with its meta context. The movie itself is about the making of another Freddy Kruger picture, a cursed production that blurs the lines between reality & nightmare and free will & scripted fiction to the point where it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a character being awake, getting trapped in Freddy’s playground of the subconscious, or, worse yet, living out one of Wes Craven’s screenplays.

Set on the 10th anniversary of the original Freddy Krueger picture, New Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. As the anniversary of the film draws near, threatening phonecalls (often accompanied by Earthquakes) that impossibly seem to be from Freddy Krueger himself torment the poor actress, establishing a mood of dread very early in the picture. The strange thing is that Langenkamp is good friends with Robert Englund, her colleague who portrays Krueger in the movies. Englund, playing himself (and Freddy, of course), is portrayed as a genteel dude here, spending his days idly painting in the sun room of a mansion undoubtedly funded by the success of the Elm Street films, a far cry from the undead homicidal maniac he embodies with Freddy. As mentioned above, Wes Craven also plays himself in New Nightmare. He explains to Heather that he’s been working on a script (or a “nightmare in progress” as he calls it) for a new Elm Street picture as a means to stop Krueger from becoming “real”. According to Craven, because Freddy was killed off in the 6th installment of the franchise (Freddy’s Dead: The “Final” Nightmare), he has been set free like a genie from a bottle, now able to manifest in real life, causing real havoc. The only way to stop Freddy, Craven explains, is to make another picture, an ordeal Heather is very reluctant to suffer.

There is so much to enjoy in New Nightmare & the film really does at times feel like all of the best elements of Wes Craven’s aesthetic conveniently gathered in one package. Striking an unnerving artificiality from the get go, the whole film feels like a constant dream state, a feeling that’s only amplified as the walls between the conscious & the subconscious, as well as the walls between the movie & the movie within the movie, begin to break down into a mess of Freddy Krueger themed chaos. As for Krueger himself, he actually doesn’t appear in his full form for much of the film. He’s more of a disembodied idea than a physical threat, often appearing solely as a clawed glove & at one point literally becoming larger than life by appearing in the clouds above a freeway. Heather’s horrified reaction to Krueger’s new, true-life form & his adoring fans’ gushing at his publicity appearances call into question Craven’s own thoughts on his creations & their fandom, particularly with the rougher work of films like The Last House on the Left. Otherworldly landscapes of bedsheets & subconscious dungeons recall the POV of a child’s imagination Craven so well captured in The People Under the Stairs. Although the dream state reflections of The Serpent & The Rainbow and the original Elm Street as well as the meta reflections of the Scream movies may have been more thoroughly solidfied in his other pictures, it’s nice to see those two worlds bounce off each other in such a satisfying way here.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might not be his most technically accomplished film & it’s doubtful that it’ll be the one he’s most remembered for, but it holds a special place in my heart as a sum of the accomplishments of a director I grew up loving & fearing. When I heard the recent news that the incredibly gifted director had died, it was the first film I thought to revisit as a means of remembrance. It only helps that the director himself makes an appearance in the film to weigh in on the magical nature of filmmaking, directly referencing his personal compulsions to create, the often hellish compulsions that drive anyone to create, and the ways art can take on a life of its own outside its creator’s will or control. Besides being a great film as well as a reflection on the nature of horror as a genre & art as an enterprise, New Nightmare is a solid means to commemorating the accomplishments of a great director who is unfortunately no longer with us. He will undoubtedly be missed, but we’ll always have great films like New Nightmare to remember him by. Much like his creation Freddy Krueger, Craven lives on.

-Brandon Ledet