The first 30 minutes of “The Final Girls” is such wildly demented, over-the-top fun that it’s a little disheartening to find that the final hour fails to live up to the initial madness. You can tell “The Final Girls” is going to be a silly horror movie from the get-go, but it constantly messes with your expectations before it finally decides to settle down. You think it’s one type of horror movie, then it’s not, then it is again… or is it? Granted, the movie probably couldn’t have sustained itself had it continued down this bat-shit crazy path for 90 minutes, but one can’t help but feel a bit let down when it reverts to more standard horror-comedy fare.
The silly, off-beat nature of “The Final Girls” often feels like a really inspired episode of “Children’s Hospital.” But the only actual connection between the Adult Swim show and this movie is Malin Akerman, who gets to show off her comedic talents yet again here. “The Final Girls,” as a matter of fact, has quite an impressive cast, mostly consisting of actors who don’t normally get to have substantial roles in feature films. Adam DeVine (“Workaholics”), Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Nina Dobrev (“Vampire Diaries”), Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), they each get their chance to shine.
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Taissa Farmiga plays the lead character, Max. Farmiga has the not-as-fun job of playing the “straight man” role. And this might be unintentional, but she gives off heavy Jennifer Love Hewitt vibes, circa “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” If that’s what she was going for, then she pretty much nails it. Her character, Max, is a cute high school senior with a tormented past who generally keeps to herself, especially since the untimely death of her mother (Akerman).
Over two decades ago, Max’s mother was once the star of a slasher flick called “Camp Bloodbath,” which has since developed cult classic status. Eventually Max gets coerced into attending a special screening of “Camp Bloodbath” where, after a fire erupts inside the theater, she finds herself trapped inside the movie with her friends. Farmiga and Alexander Ludwig, who plays her love interest, have the most thankless roles of the bunch, but to their credit, the writers give us just enough reasons to care about the fates of these characters.
Screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller must have had a lot of fun establishing the rules inside this “Camp Bloodbath” movie. They play around with all the typical “Friday the 13th“-esque horror beats, whether it’s establishing the camp counselors as sex-crazed sleaze bags or including an exposition-heavy flashback that explains the villain’s backstory. They pack in quite a lot of jokes, especially in the first half of the film, and director Todd Strauss-Schulson (“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”) does a solid job of maintaining the right balance of allowing as much silly comedy as possible while also giving the characters time to have a couple genuine, cynicism-free moments together.
And for the most part, Strauss-Schulson succeeds in disguising the low-budget nature of this film. He doesn’t exactly have the kinetic energy of Edgar Wright, but he does pull a few neat visual gags out of his sleeve. There’s a moment where a car crashes and spins out of control and the camera spins at the exact same time as the car — and it’s as disorientating and over-the-top as it sounds. Plus, the entire sequence inside the movie theater where the fire breaks out is just gleefully absurd. Moments like those are pretty fun, but like mentioned above, eventually the movie begins to lose its madcap spirit.
Once we’re in the movie-world of “Camp Bloodbath” and all the rules have been established, that’s when the movie starts to feel… average. Suddenly, the focus and the energy wind up revolving solely around the plot. Max, her friends, and the camp counselors have to come up with a plan to defeat the villain and we have seen some version of this plot played out many times before. Instead of continuing to subvert these genre tropes, “The Final Girls” ends up playing it a little too straight. And the demented charm especially starts to wear thin once all the eccentric characters get killed off.
We’ve seen a lot of horror movie parodies over the years. Some good, some very bad — most of them are very bad, let’s face it. Ultimately, “The Final Girls” settles into a sweet spot where it’s not quite “Cabin in the Woods,” but it’s definitely no “Scary Movie 4” either. The writers seem more interested in establishing their own world as opposed to unimaginatively ripping off from others — and that’s what keeps the movie from falling completely off the rails. Not every joke lands and it’s not as consistently funny as it could have been, but at its best, “The Final Girls” evokes the offbeat silliness of David Wain’s parody films like “Wet Hot American Summer” and “They Came Together.” Maybe the writers should have asked Wain for help once they started running out of fresh ideas. [C+]