The Final Girls & Horror Feminism

Last night, I trekked down to Los Angeles to check out a premiere of a new movie at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The night’s offering? A horror spoof called The Final Girls.

Img from Variety

Img from Variety

Not to be confused with an Abigail Breslin movie of nearly the same name also coming out this year (which isn’t a comedy and looks pretty damn cool), the movie was written by Joshua John Miller (a former child actor and son of Jason Miller, who played the priest in The Exorcist) and M.A. Fortin, and directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson (director of such illuminating classics as A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas). I didn’t know this going in, but Fortin & Strauss-Schulson also went to my alma mater, Emerson College, a few years before me. So, that was nice. Go Lions.

If you’re not aware of why Final Girl is such a popular title, it all goes back to Carol Clover, a film professor and theorist who coined the term in 1992. In her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, she explains that horror movie patrons are urged to identify with the Final Girl– the female protagonist whose job it is to survive the deranged killer, and put an end to the massacre. It is pretty much the only time in movie making that straight men are urged to, and do, identify with a female character. (Tiny feminist win!)

This trope has been spoofed a billion times, most notably in the Scream series, but also in Cabin in the Woods. It’s good fodder for filmmakers, but only a handful have dutifully pointed out that being the Final Girl is not really an honor. It’s punishment, if not outright torture, for being female. Being a Final Girl is a diabolical purity test– as pointed out in Scream or The Final Girls, the second you have sex, get drunk, or do anything unseemly, you’re a goner in the horror movie world– just about the only people who have it worse are black guys. The trope is less of a celebration of the strength of women and more of a threat; a don’t-get-yourself-raped message from Hollywood on High.

I read a really interesting article on Polygon a few months ago, called Horror movies are one of the few places women are told their fears are real— a long and unwieldy title for an article, sure, but extremely truthful. Writer Gita Jackson argues that in horror movies, things that all women fear– that no matter what you do, basically, some creep is going to jump out of the bushes and attack you, or that the boy you fell in love with is going to one day turn into a f*ing abusive monster– are legitimized by the corroborating fear felt by audiences. (Guys will say #notallmen, but they will agree #yesallknifeweildingpsychopaths.)

The Final Girls has a fresh enough take on the plot: Max, a typically misanthropic alt-girl played by Taissa Farmiga (who is starting to get too old for the schtick) is close with her single mom, Amanda (Malin Ackerman), who is still trying to make it as an actress even though her claim to fame is starring in a lousy 80s slasher flick called Camp Bloodbath. Amanda is offed rather rapidly in a CGI car crash, and three years later, Max is still mourning her death when her best friend Gertie’s (Alia Shawkat) loser brother pressures her to come to a screening of her mom’s  best known work. A fire breaks out in the theater and Max and her friends slice through the movie screen to escape– only stepping headfirst into the movie instead.

Sight gags abound and are completely delightful. The camp counselors of the film-within-the-film are one-note, some of them sour (for me, I’ll be happy when Adam Devine stops making movies, he’s the Millenial Adam Sandler) and some of them fantastic (Angela Trimbur who played Tina, the “slutty” counselor, is a going to be a Major Movie Star, mark my words. I hope Paul Feig picks her up for his next comedy). Max is confronted immediately with Nancy, the character her mom played in the 80s, and makes it her mission to “save” her, once and for all.

Hijinks ensue, including the most bizarre, least sexy, and most phenomenal strip tease in movie history, courtesy of Trimbur. Thankfully, the director is smart enough to draw the line before showing anything more scandalous than chaste Gap Body-esque lingerie. The Bloodbath characters (as described by the director in a Q&A after the movie) are “Reagan-era sex morons,” and it’s a punchline that is actually strong enough to make it a successful running gag. A fight scene at the end makes me hope Farmiga can pull a Saoirse Ronan and make a bad-ass action movie.

Aside from some dizzying camera effects that left me almost barfy, the movie’s biggest issue is that it doesn’t do enough to spoof horror movies; instead, it’s more of an homage. Where Cabin succeeded, this movie fails: the virginal Final Girls, Max and Nancy, are put on a pedestal and claim the title and its responsibilities, rather than rebuking the compartmentalization and defining themselves. There is absolutely no understanding of the complexities of what it means to be a woman being threatened with death, which other movies introduced and the genre desperately needs someone to further.

During the Q&A, the writers and director mentioned that it was a film made “by three guys… writing about girls,” and sadly, it really shows. I’d still recommend seeing the film, but with an understanding that it’s not satire– it’s just a pretty good slasher flick.

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