In a post-Scream world, it seems like there have been hundreds of horror films that offer meta-commentary about the genre. But movies that make that commentary essential to the story instead of just "look how clever we are" asides are rare, and now we can add The Final Girls to that camp. Todd Strauss-Schulson's film sends up horror tropes while also being genuinely emotional and deeply moving, which are aspects of storytelling normally avoided in a genre celebrated for its over-the-top kills and terrible puns. The Final Girls is the last movie of LA Film Fest 2015 for me, and it's also hands-down the best movie I saw at this year's festival.
The film centers on Max (Taissa Farmiga), the teenage daughter of 1980s scream queen Amanda (Malin Akerman), who's most famous for her work in a cheesy Friday the 13th-style slasher flick called Camp Bloodbath. Max is having a hard time dealing with her mother's death, and she reluctantly agrees to attend a screening of Camp Bloodbath led by Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), the head of a fan club called the "Bathmeticians." But the theater catches on fire, and soon Max, Duncan, and a few more of their friends are transported into the movie, where they meet up with the cast of the film — camp counselors played by Adam Devine, Angela Trimbur, and more — and have to figure out how to survive the attacks of the film's serial killer.
There are plenty of meta jokes about being trapped in a horror movie and a handful of gory kills, but the most surprising element of The Final Girls is its honest-to-God emotional core. Farmiga is this movie's secret weapon, her huge expressive eyes welling with tears when she encounters the film version of her mom in the flesh. As the modern teens and the group of camp counselor characters band together to survive the rampage of the killer, Max has a deeper concern: this woman isn't her real mother, but since her real mom is gone, this is the next best thing. Farmiga brings a brokenness and vulnerability to this role that makes us instantly root for her, and her scenes together with Akerman provide the movie's beating heart as hilarious chaos occurs around them. It's all about coming to terms with the ones we've lost, which is a strange thing to be about in a movie that features people dying left and right, but that dichotomy is what makes The Final Girls so great.
The cast is fantastic, the acting is solid (and purposefully laughably bad in the movie-within-the-movie), and aside from some minor quibbles like some early VFX issues, Strauss-Schulson has created a movie that works wonderfully almost in spite of its premise. What could have been really annoying is handled with true care and passion, but there's always a joke or fist-pumping moment waiting around the corner to make sure the tone stays buoyant. When filmmakers make "love letters" to a certain genre they sometimes miss the mark, but The Final Girls is one of the best love letters to a genre I've ever seen.