Midnight Madness is one of the best things about the Toronto International Film Festival — 1200 rabid fans, excited to see genre movies starting every night of the festival at midnight. And FINAL GIRLS is the perfect Midnight Madness movie. The concept is a great one. Max (Taissa Farminga) is the daughter of Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), who, in this fictional universe, became well known for her role in the cult film CAMP BLOODBATH. But that was the 80s, and she hasn’t had much luck being taken seriously since then. Max gets dragged to an screening of her mom’s old movie one day, and due to a mysterious accident ends up inside the movie-within-a-movie, CAMP BLOODBATH. Her friends, played by Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), are sucked into the movie universe with her.
What follows is something like a mash-up between GROUNDHOG DAY, SCREAM, and FRIDAY THE 13th. The modern-day characters know the plot of the slasher film, and make every attempt to change the storyline. But it seems that supernatural forces are at work — no matter what they do, things keep happening according to the typical slasher narrative. For example, if you have sex, you die — it seems that only a virgin can survive to kill the killer. This is where the title comes from (coined by Carl J. Glover in her book MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS), there is always a final girl left to battle it out with the big bad. Here, they aren’t sure which of the girls is going to live until the end.
That in and of itself is a great setup, but then the movie does some pretty great things with it. Modern characters confront the casual homophobia, sexism, and shallow depth of the 80s characters. In fact, two of them (played by Adam DeVine and Angela Trimbur), at some point start to realize they are just stock characters in a slasher film. It also gives Max a chance to interact with the young film version of her Mom — the role that both defined her and boxed her in.
FINAL GIRLS is based on an outstanding screenplay by M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller. It has a plot that really moves, and is filled with hilarious moments and smart commentary on film genres. The cast does a great job of bringing it to life too. You can tell they had a lot of fun making it, and did a fair amount of improvisation, since we get to see an extended series of outtakes over the final credits.
A bunch of the credit also goes to the director, Todd Strauss-Schulson. He has a knack for milking the comedy out of every situation, and elevating fun moments to iconic status. But this isn’t just silly fun — there are some harrowing, tragic moments too. I won’t spoil anything, but I will say that there’s a great moment of truly heartfelt character interaction followed by tragedy that is as good as anything I’ve seen in film this year. And it all hinges on outstanding direction. It is hard enough to really pull off any one of action, comedy, pathos, and horror, and here he juggles them all to powerful effect.
FINAL GIRLS was the runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Midnight Madness award this year, losing only to the brilliant HARDCORE. I have a feeling it will cross over from the horror genre to become a mainstream hit.