Though hardly the cleverest of genre satires, The Final Girls is bracing for its emotional sincerity. An antidote to the smugly clever The Cabin in the Woods, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s film is built on personal trauma: Max’s (Taissa Farmiga) loss of her mother, Amanda (Malin Akerman), who we see just before she’s killed in a car accident, lamenting how her scream-queen stardom, cemented by the cheesy 1980s film Camp Bloodbath, has left her frustrated as a result of typecasting. When a fire erupts inside the theater celebrating the film’s anniversary, Max and her friends and peers find themselves trapped in Camp Bloodbath itself, which, in this alternate meta-movie universe, repeats every 92 minutes (the running time of the film within a film) until these characters figure out how to escape the loop.
The Final Girls isn’t a postmodern breakthrough, though some of the gags that arise from Max and company entering Camp Bloodbath’s world are inventive, such as the jail cell-like visualization of the characters stuck in a transition into a flashback. But compared to the pointedly self-aware horror comedy of Scream and Shaun of the Dead, it both aims for a to-the-rafters broadness that edges perilously close to condescension and too often uncritically relies on borrowed moves from the classics of the horror canon: The hornier camp counselors are oversexed cartoons, while composer Gregory James Jenkins doesn’t even try to hide his affinity for Harry Manfredini’s Friday the 13th scores. (Though Friday the 13th is certainly the prime inspiration behind Camp Bloodbath, The Final Girls itself shares more of a tonal kinship with the jokey Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives than with the original.)
But Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller take their characters seriously, which adds surprising weight to the film’s comic playfulness. When Max suggests to Nancy, the role Amanda plays in Camp Bloodbath, that perhaps she could escape the world of the film within a film and achieve the future she’s envisioned for herself, the moment expresses as much Max’s desire to have her mother back as it does an implicit call for a walking horror archetype to step outside of her genre-dictated box. The most subversive aspect of The Final Girls, then, is the grenade it lobs at the sadism inherent in the slasher genre by managing to make us care about these two women as more than just body-bag fodder.