Just when I’m about to get detached retinas from rolling my eyes at yet another misogynistic piece of pop culture, fate hands me some relief (and blog material).
Today we discuss the Plesantville of the Horror genre, The Final Girls (released in 2015).
Really, it’s relationship to Pleasantville is only due to the premise – it actually reminded me more of Steel Magnolias. That comparison may sound completely wrong on the surface, but both films are an interesting take on certain aspects of American culture, they both explore relationships between mothers and daughters, they are both hilarious, and they are both utterly heartbreaking. Or maybe I’m just a sap.
Oh, by the way, very mild spoilers. Well, I consider them mild – I’m not going to tell you the ending, but if you’d rather go in knowing nothing I suggest viewing The Final Girls first.
For the uninitiated, the Final Girls title is a reference to the classic slasher movie trope that the villain can only be killed by the last protagonist character, and that last character left is usually a girl and almost always a virgin. Anyone who has sex in the film is brutally murdered.
There is a swathe of articles, dissertations, and even websites based around discussing this trope; is having a woman subdue the bloodthirsty and sex-obsessed villain feminist, or is killing off anyone who has sex (particularly girls who lose their virginity) actually a patriarchal and puritanical statement? Nobody can seem to come to an agreement on this. On the one hand, sex is a normal part of life and should be celebrated. On the other, it’s depicted in films mostly because tits and arse sell movie tickets.
A fantastic documentary called American Grindhouse explains the origin of this trope to a certain extent.
Back in the 1930s and 40s a lot of filmmakers were unable to get their films shown in public cinemas unless they were billed as “cautionary tales” – Reefer Madness and She Shoulda Said No (Aka Wild Weed) could only be shown because they portrayed the (unrealistic) worst case scenario of what happens when teens try drugs. These exploitation films (named as such because they exploited whatever topic was trendy at the time) would use the promise of sex and violence to get people in the door and a cautionary ending to keep them from being run out of town. Controversy just served to sell more tickets.
When censorship laws were relaxed a bit in the 60’s and 70’s the concept of people being punished for promiscuity and drug use had firmly embedded itself as a safe trope to fall back on. So, we just have anyone take out the monster as long as they’re virginal? Well, no. Because in that misogynistic day and age,
A) nobody is going to believe in a lead male character who isn’t trying to have sex with the girls,
B) nobody will believe male character being genuinely terrified of a machete-wielding maniac and
C) nobody wants to see a male character ‘penetrate’ another male character with a machete/sword/sharp-pointy-thing, because the knife is an analogy for the killer’s frustrated penis. We can’t have our hero being even remotely gay (but the bad guy can, because he’s the bad guy).
At least, that’s what the tropes tend to suggest. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to all of these rules (including one I watched a few weeks ago called “The Burning”…which was awful), but they’re generally pretty bad and not considered to be ‘classics’ by any stretch.
Therefore, the final victor has to be a girl because we’ll believe she’s really afraid, believe she’s a virgin, and she won’t have any homoerotic overtones. But we still have to make her masculine enough that you believe she can actually defeat the monster, so she’s imbibed with traditionally “masculine” traits – investigative, tough, and often has a gender-ambiguous name.
So by the end she is not a damsel in distress, but a sex-deprived tomboy taking her sexual and power frustrations out on the villain by stealing his penis machete and stabbing him with it. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty powerful feminist statement if you ignore that she has to be masculinised in order to win.
Got all that?
I could spend pages and pages delving into this concept but in 1992 a much smarter woman named Carol Clover released a book called Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in Modern Horror Film, and I recommend reading it if you are interested in this topic. Personally, I don’t think the genre progressed in a feminist sense until the 1990’s when we were blessed Scream and Buffy– two productions where the final girl gets to have sex and kill the monsters- but that’s a discussion for another day.
Okay, so on to The Final Girls itself.
I absolutely have to be in the right mood to enjoy a slasher film and turn off my feminist lens, but The Final Girls is, first and foremost, a genre parody, and it manages to both mock and pay loving tribute to all of the slasher flick tropes we’ve come to expect. It’s exploring and picking apart the genre using humour, and as such the film is not actually scary at all. Having said this, my horror-loving partner absolutely adores it, and I’m writing a glowing review even though I’m a complete horror wuss; it appeals to all kinds.
The Final Girls begins with the trailer to the fictional 1980’s classic, “Camp Bloodbath”.
The character of “Nancy” (the blonde one) is played by our protagonist’s mother, Amanda Cartwright. The role made Amanda famous as a scream queen, and she hasn’t been able to get any decent roles in film or TV since. When she dies, her daughter Max (note the gender-neutral name) is sent to live with her aunt. Three years later, Max is hanging out with her best friend, Gertie, and possible future boyfriend, Chris, when Gertie’s step brother, Duncan, invites them to an anniversary screening of “Camp Bloodbath”. Also at the screening is Chris’ ex-girlfriend Vicki, so right away we have the normal chick, the funny friend, the cute guy, the dorky guy and the mean girl.
Needless to say, Max is conflicted by the whole thing and isn’t actually that thrilled to watch her mum in the role that defined and ruined her short career. While they’re watching the screening, a series of thoughtless occurrences cause the cinema to catch on fire. In their attempt to escape, Max and co end up…in the movie! *dun dun duuuun!*
Instantly we see a shift in both camera technique and colour palette. The world of Camp Bloodbath is almost painfully bright in comparison to the ‘real world’, which has been a trope since The Wizard of Oz.
Max and the others aren’t sure where they are until they see a yellow van rolling down the road with most of the characters from the film – Kurt the douchebag jock, Tina the slut, Blake the token black sidekick, Mimi the promiscuous hippy who dies within the first five minutes, and cute blonde Nancy, AKA Max’s mother. Ninety-two minutes later, the van goes past again. Another ninety-two minutes and the kids get the courage to ask for a ride because there’s no other way forward than to follow the plot of the movie. Unfortunately, with extra people interacting with the original characters, the plot plays out a little differently. Max and her friends have to explain to the others that they’re in a slasher movie and if they want to survive they have to keep their clothes on. So from here they make a plan to kill Billy Murphey, the machete-wielding maniac.
The really interesting thing about this film is that, rather than being an old-school morality tale, it actually focuses more on regret. Max spends most of the time trying to keep Nancy safe, even though Nancy isn’t really her mother. But as the film goes on, you remember that a character is a mixture of what is written for them and what the actor brings to the role, so Nancy is really more like Amanda than we first thought. There are a few very touching and emotional scenes between Max and Nancy which I feel really add some extra depth to what would otherwise be a very simple story.
The relationships between the characters are exceptionally well-written, and an exercise in contrast. Max, Chris, Gertie, Duncan and Vicki have some serious depth to their characters. Vicki is pretty, spoiled and bitchy, but she’s also under a lot of pressure to do well at school and is taking Adderall to cope. She and Max were best friends before Max’s mum died, and she still holds some resentment that Max pushed her away. Her 1980’s counterpart is Tina, who’s only real identifiers are that she’s pretty, promiscuous and dumb.
2015 Chris is handsome, smart and was raised by gay dads. He also shows way, way more respect for women than 1980’s Kurt, who spends most of his time talking about boobs and his dick.
Common movie-making techniques become the source of some brilliant comedic material. Flashbacks and slow-motion sequences are played up for laughs, as are the changes in culture (“Well, at least now I can save myself for George Michael!” “Oh, honey…”).
Some of the best comedy comes from Tina. They know that Billy appears whenever someone takes their top off, so they go to great lengths to make sure that Tina doesn’t draw him in until they’re ready. Their awareness of the genre tropes turns this film from being another mindless gore-fest into a funny commentary on changes in attitudes over the decades.
I’m not going to spoil the ending for you because I’m not a monster, but if you’re familiar with the genre you can pretty much predict how it’s going to go. I will say that if, after seeing The Final Girls, you can listen to “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes without tearing up a little bit you have a heart of cold, dead wood.
As it never had an Australian cinema release you can probably pick this up in the JB-HiFi bargain bin, but it has all the makings of a cult classic.