“The Final Girls” is now playing on video-on-demand, including ITunes and Amazon Prime. PG-13, 1:28, two stars out of four.
At this point, nearly 20 years after “Scream,” it seems daring to make a horror movie that isn’t a meta deconstruction of the genre. “The Final Girls” aims to play with the campy conventions of ’80s summer-camp slasher movies, especially the “Friday the 13th movies.” But this is more straight comedy than horror comedy, with the scares and violence toned way down for PG-13 consumption. If you’re enough of a horror fan to know what a “Final Girl” is, ironically, you might not be the right audience for it.
In horror movie parlance, the “Final Girl” is the last character standing in a horror movie, usually a virginal young woman, who is able to defeat the masked maniac who has slashed everyone else to ribbons. In a highly amusing prologue, we see the fake trailer for “Camp Bloodbath,” in which a Jason-like killer named “Billy” slices through the horny counselors at a summer camp. (“They won’t be singing ‘Kumbaya,’ they’ll be screaming ‘Kum-ba-NOOOOOO!'”)
Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman) wasn’t the “Final Girl” of “Camp Bloodbath,” but she made enough of an impression to become a B-movie scream queen of sorts. As the movie opens, 20 years later, Angela is driving home from another failed audition, her doting (and more mature) daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga). There’s a car accident, and Angela is killed.
More forward another three years, and the grieving Max has reluctantly agreed to be the guest of honor at a revival showing of the “Camp Bloodbath” movies at the urging of her film-geek friend Duncan (Thomas Middleditch). A fire breaks out in the theater, and Max and her friends (including Alia Shawkat and Nina Dobrev) are forced to cut their way through the screen playing “Camp Bloodbath” to escape.
Only, in a “Purple Rose of Cairo” reversal, they end up entering the world of “Camp Bloodbath.” They meet all the familiar horror-movie victim stereotypes, from the horny guy (Adam Devine of “Pitch Perfect”) to the sexy girl (Angela Trimbur) to, most importantly, the character that Max’s mom played. As Billy threatens, Max and her friends have to figure out if they can play by the rules of the genre and survive, and maybe finally save Max’s mom in the process. It’s that emotional connection between Max and her mom that provides surprising heart to the movie, even if the filmmakers aren’t always sure how to integrate those feelings in with the broad comedy and jump scares.
The screenplay by M.A. Fortin and John Joshua Miller gets some mileage out of messing with horror movie conventions; knowing that the serial killers especially target victims who have had just had sex, they keep Trimbur’s horny character trussed up in oven mitts and a life jacket. And the campers all know Billy is coming because they hear that eerie “cha-cha-cha” whisper on the soundtrack.
But for a horror movie spoof, “The Final Girls” is surprisingly slack on tension or momentum, letting a lot of time pass between good jokes or clever ideas, giving the actors sometimes too much time to do schtick. The exception is Middleditch, who is really funny as film-geek Duncan, who urges his friends to treat the horror-movie environs like a “wildlife preserve.” But he gets much less screen time than the other characters, unfortunately.
And, for a film that is supposedly set inside a grungy ’80s B-movie, director Todd Strauss-Schulson makes the curious decision to film in a lush color palette suitable for a Maxfield Parrish painting, with glorious sunsets and pastoral fields. Pretty, but it looks like a demo reel for his next film rather than the right choice for this one.
And, while I can’t say I regard the “Friday the 13th” series or its ilk with much fondness, the film could have used a little blood, a little peril, to juice things up. Instead, for long stretches, it really does feel like we’re wandering in a horror-movie wildlife preserve, tame and bloodless, waiting for something to happen.