The Final Girls opens with a trailer for Camp Bloodbath, a fictional early-’80s slasher movie modeled on Friday The 13th and its ilk. The trailer is done up like a poor man’s Grindhouse goof, simulating print scratches, dreamily faded colors, period trappings, and low-budget production values. The Final Girls is itself a low-budget movie, but the general aesthetics of those have changed enough over the past decade that its fake B-movie footage looks richer and less chintzy than its digital-shot “real” world.
In that real world, Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), who played a nubile victim in Camp Bloodbath, is still going on auditions many years later. (Either the movie is a secret early-’00s period piece, or Akerman is playing both well over and under her actual age.) She gets support from her serious-minded teenage daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga), who is devastated when Amanda is killed in a car accident. A few years later, Max is trudging through the end of high school with her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat) and perking up slightly at the possibility of a relationship with hunky Chris (Alexander Ludwig). But their sort-of date to catch a screening of Camp Bloodbath is interrupted when Max, Gertie, Chris, Gertie’s geeky brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), and mean girl Vicki (Nina Dobrev) are mysteriously transported, Last Action Hero-style, into the movie they’re watching. As the events of Camp Bloodbath unfold on a continuous 90-minute loop, Max and company decide they can make their way home if they survive to the end credits.
There’s no particular reason for them to think this, a leap that sticks out because The Final Girls doesn’t have a strong handle on whether it operates by strict genre rules or dream logic. Some of its attempts to physicalize Camp Bloodbath get a little silly and unwieldy, with onscreen text visible in the movie world, and the film’s “real” visitors experiencing woozy flashback transitions even while their “movie” co-stars stay behind to narrate from off screen. The film can’t rely on its own rules because, frankly, it isn’t much of a horror spoof. Its spiritual (if not strictly factual) inaccuracies include Adam DeVine as an ’80s movie character somehow doing very 2015 ironic-jerk comic relief, and swiveling, zooming, rolling camera moves that don’t have much to do with slasher movies of the era. They look more like Sam Raimi, but who can blame director Todd Strauss-Schulson for preferring to imitate Evil Dead rather than the less inventive movies he’s purportedly spoofing? And to Strauss-Schulson’s further credit, he seems at least somewhat aware of the movie’s potential sloppiness; one of its best metatextual gags involves that aforementioned flashback, wherein Camp Bloodbath mounts a version of the ’50s, just as loose and silly as this 2015 movie’s imitation of the ’80s.
Yet Strauss-Schulson and screenwriters Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin locate some poignancy at the center of their story. Max’s jump into Camp Bloodbath allows her to meet Nancy, the onscreen version of her mother, and she immediately begins to strategize about how she might save Nancy from her prescribed fate (another character is the designated monster-defeating “final girl”). Though Farmiga spends perhaps too much of the movie gawping in frozen disbelief at the sight of her mother as a young (and fictional) woman, their relationship offers some lovely (if half-formed) ideas about Max locating the actor beneath the role—and how the Nancy of Camp Bloodbath is sort of a sweet-souled, unaware ghost of the Amanda Cartwright from real life. In the process, Akerman gets to revive the surprising warmth she showed on the little-watched TV series Trophy Wife.
This makes The Final Girls an odd concoction: a semi-crude and not especially scary horror-comedy with some real emotional depth. When it goes about the business of goofing on its subject, it’s largely forgettable; only Middleditch scores more than a handful of laughs, mostly thanks to his delivery. But the mother-daughter material keeps the movie watchable, even as the filmmakers seem to consider its weaknesses the fun parts.