‘The Final Girls’ review – horror comedy falls just short

An odd experimental mash-up combing “Cabin in the Woods,”  “Friday the 13th” and even a little of “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Final Girls” is an ode to 80s horror films that doesn’t quite cut it.

On the anniversary of the death of her scream queen mother (Malin Akerman), Max (Taissa Farmiga, “The Bling Ring“) reluctantly agrees to attend a showing of the film that made her mom quasi-famous.

The Final Girls - cast in the theaterTagging along is her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat, “Arrested Development“); her would-be boyfriend Chris (Alexander Ludwig, “Grown Ups 2“); Gertie’s stepbrother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch) and her former BFF Vicki (Nina Dobrev, “The Vampire Diaries“).

A freak fire forces the group to find the quickest escape route by cutting through the projection screen. Clearly not in Kansas, or Oz anymore, the group realizes they’re actually in the horror movie alongside the goofy camp counselors and the murderous psycho Billy Murphy (Dan B. Norris).

Modern era teens thrust into an 80s horror film is a pretty ingenious premise. Whether the clash of cultures — what’s a cell phone? — to the laughable character development of 80s era horror flicks, there’s plenty of ripe comedic slasher material, but screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller largely stick to the easy jokes.

The Final Girls - Taissa Farmia, Malin Akerman and Adam DevineComplicating matters further is Max’s mother, or at least her mother’s character Nancy, is one of the counselors. That’s giving Max some hope that she can somehow implausibly have a second chance to have her mother in her life.

That’s a heavy subplot and one Fortin and Miller handle surprisingly well. You don’t expect well-developed, emotional dramatic moments in horror films, but it’s “The Final Girls” standout sequences.

To its credit and main issue, “The Final Girls” isn’t so easily pinned down to one specific genre. It’s an emotional drama wrapped in a slasher film homage with an emphasis on comedy. That’s a bit too much for Fortin and Miller to juggle as they struggle in finding the ideal balance to make the film fully come together.

The Final Girls -Alexander Ludwig, Tory Thompson, Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman and Angela TrimburSome of the problem is the main modern characters are so nondescript. Besides Duncan, the rest are as generic as their 80s counterparts who at least have some goofy personality traits. And poking fun at the 80s has progressively resulted in diminishing comedic returns.

Occasionally, the modern characters use their knowledge of 80s horror film tropes to aid their cause — annoyingly not so much to kill the machete-wielding murderer, but to simply stick to the established rules to stay alive.  Their adherence to horror movie guidelines was puzzling since they’re the variables that should be able to change the game.

The Final Girls - Nina Dobrev and Alia ShawkatDirector Todd Strauss-Schulson proves more adept at working with the material however.  From liquid crystal effects and interactive elements in the flashbacks paired with a traditional cinematic approach to the horror boogeyman, Strauss-Schulson keeps the film engaging throughout.

One sequence where Billy emerges from an explosion engulfed in flames is one of the best shot scenes I’ve seen all year regardless of budget.

For a horror-film, the violence is largely gore- and nudity-free making for an odd PG-13 horror film in 2015 when you can see more of both on prime time TV.

The Final Girls - Taissa Farmiga and Alexander LudwigAll “The Final Girls” is missing is a “Scream Queens” infusion of quality, biting character development and it easily could have been one of 2015’s hidden gems. The weak characters unfortunately undermine a promising entry in the horror/comedy genre.

Rating: 5 out of 10