Summer camp slashers are a staple of the horror genre. From Friday the 13th to Sleepaway Camp to The Burning, choosing this adult-free setting for your bloodbath is so ubiquitous that it’s become almost too predictable. What if you introduced elements—emotional stakes, character growth, heart—that are often sorely missing from the hack-and-slash classics of the 1980s? Well, you’d end up with something a lot like 2015’s The Final Girls.
The setup is meta, and convoluted: Max (Taissa Farmiga), while mourning the death of her actress mother (Malin Akerman), is convinced to attend a screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” a fictional ‘80s slasher that featured her mom. Max and her group of friends are magically transported into the film, somehow able to interact with the characters and setting, but unable to leave. They’re forced to play out the film’s climax in the hope of escaping as the end credits roll.
The plot itself is slick and subversive; modern, real-world characters are forced to interact with horror film clichés, inevitably leading to both silliness and cutting—but never heavy-handed—commentary. The Final Girls is a stylish horror-comedy, a neo-slasher filled with enough charm and era-accurate goofs to keep any genre fan appeased. But the film goes further, choosing to center on Max and Nancy’s (Akerman’s “Camp Bloodbath” avatar) ill-fated relationship.
What would you do if you were able to see the person you missed most in the world? Would it matter if it wasn’t really them? Upon entering her mom’s most notable IMDb credit, Max must address these understandably difficult questions. Face to face with the young, wide-eyed version of her mother, Max loses focus. Instead of letting the “Bloodbath” narrative unravel at a distance, she engages earnestly.
While Max knows, logically, that Nancy isn’t the woman who raised her, she also sort of is. For Max, Nancy’s movie persona—a girl away from home, rushing to lose her virginity—is too real. So when she’s presented with the chance to potentially save Nancy from the killer, she takes it, daring to rewrite the narrative. Unable to save her mother in real life, Max becomes fixated on doing so in the film.
After the untimely death of “Bloodbath’s” intended final girl, Max decides the moniker should pass to Nancy, urging her to take control of her destiny and become something different. There’s a lot of not-so-subtle subtext in Max and Nancy’s relationship; themes of reinvention, reclamation, and agency pepper the narrative. But none of this feels like a wagging finger in the face of ‘80s slasher purists—it’s simply the natural, heartfelt, and sincere through line that’s present in every facet of The Final Girls.
Max and Nancy aren’t the only characters with a touching arc. Former best friends Max and Vicki (Nina Dobrev) work through the issues that caused their falling out with refreshing honesty. It creates a layered relatability that would otherwise be absent in slasher flick “cannon fodder.” In fact, when the repetitious “Bloodbath” campers are introduced to the real-world characters, they are freed, able to shed stereotypes and become fully realized characters themselves.
Promiscuous agent of chaos Tina (Angela Trimbur) shifts to an active participant in the battle against the masked killer. Dorky Blake (Tory N. Thompson) finds kinship in the transplanted Gertie (Alia Shawkat), and they develop a sweet filtration that stands in contrast to the type of courting typically found in the genre. Instances of genuine connection, atonement, and sacrifice take a high-concept ‘80s tribute into unique and heartrending territory. And at its center sits Max and Nancy, their connection so palpable that even in fiction, they find each other.
The Final Girls is successful at many things, not the least of which is being a gory and atmospheric slasher. The inventive and absurd deaths at the hands of a machete-wielding killer are heightened by juxtaposing what is supposed to happen in “Camp Bloodbath” with what actually occurs. The audience is kept on their toes as rules are broken, or never established. Even with its total embrace of genre tropes, there’s an off-the-rails quality that comes with the uncharted territory. Couple that with an emotional core steeped in kindness and you have a whole new flavor of homage.
For those who have had to parent their parents, Max’s relationship with her mother is quite familiar. She’s a girl who’s taken on the role of friend—a confidant and a shoulder to cry on. Their dynamic is unbalanced, a child growing up too fast to meet the emotional needs of a grown woman. But their love is clear; Max needs her mother as much as her mother needs her. Having the film open with the gut-punch of Akerman’s death sets real-world stakes that have tangible weight. Death means something and the vacancy of loss is enduring.
Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson (Isn’t It Romantic), and written by M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, The Final Girls is proof positive that male creators can craft authentic female-focused stories. Joshua John Miller, son of actors Jason Miller (The Exorcist) and Sue Bernard (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), appears uniquely qualified to co-pen a story that centers on an aging genre performer; it’s likely one of the reasons the relationship at the film’s center is so genuine and affecting.
Yes, The Final Girls successfully incorporates slasher must-haves, like a creepy masked killer with a tragic backstory, blood drenched deaths, and unsupervised teenagers into a more nuanced story about loss and growth. But so many genre staples skip building emotional bases, and in the end, we don’t care when the blond gets impaled or the kid with glasses drowns. In the world of horror movies, these are just bodies on the pile, but the brilliance of The Final Girls is that it dares to make you care about the victims in slashers—and the family members they leave behind.