Revenge of the horror cliché
The tide turns on a tired horror film trope in The Final Girls
For decades, “the final girl” has limped, scratched, jumped and stabbed her way to the end of horror movies. She’s one of the most recognizable tropes in a genre full of them; but now the final girl is — finally — becoming the star.
The Final Girls, playing at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Midnight Madness program, features a group of modern-day moviegoers sucked into a cult 1980s slasher flick.
It joins two other recent movies that riff on the trope — Tyler Shields’ similarly titled Final Girl and Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing — both allowing the final girl to star in her own movie and not the killer’s.
The Final Girls stars not one but several heroines facing off against a masked killer. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin set out to make a movie that pays homage to the slasher genre while poking holes in its dated stereotypes: the shy virgin, the oversexualized mean girl, the jock, the villain who never dies and everyone’s inexplicable compulsion to make bad choices in near-death situations.
“We’re playing the game; we’re doing the rules,” Strauss-Schulson says about the horror-comedy, which follows a group of friends who team up with the fictional camp counsellors in the movie Camp Bloodbath and use horror tropes to defeat the evil, machete-wielding Billy Murphy.
The situation is more complex than life or death for the main character Max (Taissa Farmiga), who’s mourning the sudden loss of her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman), an actress whose biggest role was as a doomed counsellor in Camp Bloodbath. Plunged into a world where her mother’s life can still be saved, Max decides her own isn’t the only one she wants to fight for.
“I thought it was smart to tell a story about bereavement, loss and death in a genre that doesn’t take it very seriously at all,” says StraussSchulson, who lost his own father shortly before reading the script of The Final Girls. “It’s really not trying to relish in the pleasure of the deaths.”
Since Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, horror movie heroines have undergone several significant changes, explains Alexandra West, horror journalist and host of the podcast “The Faculty of Horror.” And not all of them have been for the better; West says that for every two steps forward the final girl takes, another film sets her one back.
Though it was significant to see young women physically fight and outsmart a villain, earlier depictions of final girls had some obvious issues: they were shy and virginal, immediately dropped their weapon after thinking they had defeated the killer, and were ultimately rescued or comforted by a man. But later incarnations broke the mould.
The late Wes Craven, in particular, was known for making his final girls (Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street and Sidney in Scream) flawed, brave, sexual and victorious. For West, Scream’s Sidney Prescott was a turning point for the final girl and actually ignited her interest in the horror genre.
“I think we’re in a period now where if you’re not doing Sidney, you have to specifically react against Sidney and make that clear,” she says.
“Women still have a hard time in horror films. They’re constantly being martyred or deified, and we’re still sort of struggling with the idea of a woman being anything other than that,” West says. “I think the final girl trope continues to be so interesting because it’s constantly fluid.”
For Strauss-Schulson, changing the final girl trope is very suitable to 2015.
“This is a movie starring mostly women, all supporting each other and kicking ass with each other, and the guys are emotional,” he says, adding that even the stereotypical characters within the movie become selfaware and strong.
“It does feel like there’s a trend toward more emotional sensitivity. So I think it’s interesting that there’s a new slasher movie that is really trying hard to pull on your heartstrings.
“It’s not about the body count, it’s about the aftermath of the body count,” he says.
The Final Girls premieres Saturday at midnight at the Ryerson Theatre.
The Final Girls joins a chorus of recent movies that subvert the old horror trope of the last girl standing facing off against a killer.