Tyler Shields’s Final Girl parodies the overlapping tropes of the horror and action film genres (innocent girl, venal men, a reckoning in which the violator becomes the violated), as well as the “revisionist” clichés that have been piled atop those tropes by self-conscious directors for the sake of courting feminist relevancy (prolonged “humanizing” backstory of said girl, which often contextualizes her solely through a male scrim, speechifying about the villains’ misdeeds, though we’ve been primed to enjoy them, and so on). The film is in on its own absurdity, starting with the title, which references the “final girl” of most slasher films, and who Shields and screenwriter Adam Prince plop into the middle of a stylized gloss on The Most Dangerous Game, setting up a situation in which horror’s reliably besieged virgin is also the supreme hunter.
In the opening, William (Wes Bentley), a requisite shady ringleader of something or other, recruits a girl who’s just lost her parents, who passes his first test when she blithely dismisses their deaths with rationalization along the lines of “shit happens.” It’s one of the more amusing scenes in the film, a quiet touch that indicates the filmmakers’ awareness of the contrived insensitivities, and even the hypocrisies, of their elaborate oppressed-avenger narrative. (Namely, that “girl power” action films are stories of aggression that still ultimately play to reductive dude fantasies of women as simultaneous receivers and delivers of punishment. Whatever their virtues, you’d have to be nuts to see Kill Bill and Lucy, for instance, as feminist.) Flash-forward 12 years and that girl has grown up to be Veronica (Abigail Breslin). And, yes, that reference to Archie is intentional, if the film’s obsession with misleadingly prim 1950s-era iconography is any indication. William has trained Veronica to be a super killer, this month’s Lucy, and her final test is to wipe out a group of late-teen boys who hunt blonde pinups for sport in the woods after presumably seducing them at sock hops.
The 1950s preoccupation knocks you for a loop for its arbitrariness. A pivotal setting is an open, anachronistic café with vase-shaped lights that appears to serve only fries and milkshakes, which these aging kids couldn’t be more thrilled about. In one shot, a mom-and-pop pharmacy is visible through a restaurant window, as the characters trade dialogue in that über-arch tradition that suggests a young writer riffing on David Lynch riffing on vintage soap operas. The most memorable bad guy, Danny (Logan Huffman), talks like a contemporary fantasy of a hepcat; with his self-consciously soft, crooning line deliveries, he suggests Johnny Depp impersonating Tom Waits impersonating Sammy Davis Jr. In one of the best scenes, Danny is shown dancing to jazz with his ax, which he regards as a pet and a lover—a succinct encapsulation of the way violence and lust often cohabitate in genre movies.
The filmmakers never really answer inevitable questions: What’s the point of these fussy allusions? Why mine the 1950s for cultural signifiers when Final Girl otherwise offers a relatively straightforward, if cheeky, run-stalk-kill narrative? Perhaps contemporary directors have been riffing on 1980s-era horror films for so long as to discover the 1950s movies that informed them. Or, more likely, the creators of Final Girl are ambitious, equal-opportunity fetishists, who throw things against a figurative wall to see what sticks. And more of it sticks than you might reasonably expect, primarily due to Breslin, who gives an astutely playful performance, knowing just how long to hold a postmodern wink, informing this contraption with humor rather than superiority.