If you’re a horror fan, you’ve noticed that every few months, there’s a new entry in the genre that’s explicitly marketed to non-fans, with blogs and critics hyping “your new favorite horror film” and granting best-since-whatever status to a certain kind of movie. Think titles like Tucker & Dale vs. Evil or the glut of “zom-rom-coms” all named [Something] of the Dead, with George Romero’s cathartic mix of racism, Vietnam, and mortality reduced to a Zombie Apocalypse decal for guys who make “that’s what she said” jokes. It’s a kind of movie pushed heavily not just to slobby Gorezone subscribers, but the whole rotten cosmos of obsessive-consumerist media-listicle culture. It’s the most unfortunate modern movie genre: smug, unscary “meta-horror.”
Going this route in 2015 is a way to get your pseudo-indie “quirky” comedy distributed with a built-in audience, like a band that goes Christian for free studio time. It’s cute, arch, clickbait-friendly horror: easy to explain, easy to understand, easy to digest, with nothing ever genuinely uncomfortable or horrific, perfect for anyone fresh off a Netflix binge of Parks and Recreation (you might even see the same actors), but pretty much worthless as actual horror.
The new horror-ironist’s patron saint is Joss Whedon, indefensibly responsible for both the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series and 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. The latter, especially, is the sort of thing made for discerning intellectuals who can’t process what’s fun or interesting about genre material unless someone in the film literally explains it to them. Some people can’t watch a slasher flick without the characters onscreen defining what the “tropes” are, but over-explaining the mythos isn’t antithetical to real horror just because it implies that ignorant exploitation fans are too dumb to care. The magic of horror films is seeing perspectives and realities outside of your own, dumb, movie-addled brain, not getting a medal for recognizing familiar genre tropes.
Every pretentious twentysomething thinks that writing a story about a guy writing a story—and “elevating” a genre by pointing out its clichés—is a stroke of genius; eventually, you come to understand that a self-invoking meta-narrative is merely the awkward step you hopefully get out of your system in your first draft, the sort of thing college kids write when all they know is TV and movies. Anyone sitting down to tell a new story eventually kills that voice and learns to synthesize something genuine out of the pieces of real life and unironic culture that make up actual art.
Of course, all this recent meta-jokery isn’t new—in 1981 alone, smart-ass parodist John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and geeky fanboy Joe Dante’s The Howling were full of winking nods to the werewolf genre. But those two films also dished out the best cinematic werewolf transformations of all time. What scenes of real, unseen terror have 21st-century meta-spoofs offered? They’re laughing at the joke before the audience notices. Famous Monsters of Filmland nerds like Dante took what they grew up with and made a new mythology; he’d cast Dick Miller but still deliver the goods. When Friday the 13th Part II reused kills from Mario Bava’s 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve, those bits weren’t put there to impress experts; they were plagiarized because the scenes were gross and scary, and they still worked.
The horror genre’s always been powered by quick cash-ins and cheap exploitation, but lately, instead of 42nd Street sleazebags and Omaha carpet salesmen trying to make the next Jaws, we get slick, pseudo-indie productions staffed with Glee stars and sitcom ringers. The tone of these films is high-concept, self-satisfied, and totally hollow. Using the most superficial of genre trappings, they suck up air from movies that actually want to do what horror does. The Cabin in the Woods regularly tops viewer- and critic-based “Best Horror Movies of the 2000s” polls, but these things have more in common with wink-wink ’90s TV adaptations like The Brady Bunch Movie. At least recent quasi-horror cargo-cult flicks like The Babadook (which I dug) and It Follows (which I hated) fumble at doing this stuff earnestly, before getting caught up in art direction and derivative minutiae.
The latest of these, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s new The Final Girls, is the final straw. It’s a horror movie incapable of any real horror, as ineffective at scares as it is at satire. The first 20 minutes even manage to render being trapped in a burning theater—which should be one of the tensest scenarios you can inflict on an audience—completely tension-free. Throughout the film, there’s zero room for actual horror to thrive, or even be considered. There’s no chance anyone in the film or the audience will be forced to think about slashers outside of the most bland and cursory way. They pick at the surface of exploitation films, mocking their excesses while trying to borrow their power.
I’m sure the napkin-pitch here was “Wet Hot American Summer meets Scream.” College student Max (Taissa Farmiga) loses her struggling-actress mom (Malin Ackerman) in a car crash; three years later, at a throwback screening of her mom’s 1986 slasher flick Camp Bloodbath, Max and her sitcom-y friends run from the aforementioned theater fire directly into the movie screen and somehow into the movie itself, where they find themselves tooling around making lame ’80s jokes at a thinly veiled Camp Crystal Lake. Will Max become the real-life “Final Girl” here? I bet you know the answer.
In the mid-’80s, feminist academics and dedicated gorehounds both noticed that horror films, and slashers in particular, tended towards a Final Girl mythology; Carol J. Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film enshrined it as law. The notion itself has been endlessly, excessively referenced in the last 12 months, not just by two current TV shows (Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens and MTV’s new Scream series), but two very similarly titled films: Tyler Shields’ Final Girl and Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing.
I suppose the creators of The Final Girls figured there was room for one more, but they don’t actually get the concept. The characters here insist again and again that a Final Girl is chaste and virginal without exception, but in Friday the 13th Part II (this film’s biggest influence), the strong, smart Ginny defeats Jason Vorhees after a night of beer and casual sex. Meanwhile, in 2015, this movie keeps demanding that sexually active women must be murdered, because “that’s the rule.” Who’s the misogynist here?
Friday the 13th and its sequels can be dumb in a lot of ways, but they’re not dishonest. It’s not brave or cutting-edge to clown them, especially so ineptly. The first entry in that series delivers what this movie promises: a tragic relationship between a mother and her child, haunted by death. Betsy Palmer’s “His name was Jason” speech is moving in a way this film could never understand. The Final Girls wants to dignify low-budget camp and give it what it thinks is an emotional core, without having any idea how either of those things work. It’s a movie made by people so insecure about watching slashers they defensively push away instead of engaging with the material honestly.
“The writing is so bad!” cackles the gang’s resident horror nerd, Duncan, Xeroxed straight from Jamie Kennedy’s character in Scream. This is a movie that thinks having a gangly fanboy point out the alleged rules of a slasher flick, like a virgin surviving to the end, is clever. Haven’t we seen this enough? Characters straight up say shit like, “I’m the mean girl in an ’80s horror movie, and we’re past the midpoint, so now I’m going to die.” Does anyone actually enjoy this crap? Is it possible in the 21st century for critics to get excited about this? Didn’t Scream have a Final Girl who knew she was a Final Girl all the way back in 1996? The most affecting scene in this lame drag isn’t any of the unearned schmaltz with Max and her mom—it’s a brief, tossed-off origin story for their Jason analogue, Billy, a humiliated nerd straight out of Slaughter High. This is the closest we ever get to the raw agony and desolation of slasher films, and the movie glosses over it like an unwanted obligation.
The Final Girls seems to think its crappy characters are smarter and more real than ’80s slasher teens, but trying to wring punch lines from “her Facebook page!” and “Twitter followers!” lets on how much these hacks are mired in predictable millennial comedy dialogue. It has the potential to say something about what kids born in the ’90s think about the past, but Adam DeVine bellowing, “I’ll give you a hand with those melons ... talkin’ about her boobs!” is straight from CBS’s Thursday-night lineup. Most of the gags aim for edgy Adult Swim parody, but the sarcastic posing masks a PG-13 cop-out. Characters facetiously allude to nudity and blood in a movie featuring neither—this puritanical bore would score a zero on Joe Bob Briggs’s Drive-In Totals. Moreover, while denouncing ’80s horror for sexism, it reveals an evasive, subtle contempt for women. Many ugly yuks are mined from carving up any woman who starts to disrobe; meanwhile, the film exempts itself from responsibility and blames O.G. slashers for their objectification. The only feminist ire here is pointed at stylized Archer/Anchorman-type misogyny so cartoonishly un-PC that nobody in the audience could feel indicted, and it repeats that overstated sexism for easy laffs. Slumber Party Massacre eats this attempted feminist critique for lunch.
Besides “ironic” chauvinism, the biggest statement The Final Girls has to make about classic slashers is a Buzzfeed-worthy “LOL, ’80s.” Characters are introduced with dialogue from “Oh, rad” to “Tubular!”; references to Ricky Schroeder, George Michael, and “Where’s the Beef” abound, plus there’s a PG-13 striptease to Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” One character tries to cram an iPhone into the tape deck of a comically large boombox. The Toni Basil song “Mickey” is played four times. There’s a smash-zoom on a Rubik’s Cube. The creators think they’ve done their homework—beyond Jason, I spotted an homage to The Burning, one line from 1982’s Pieces, and a title card lifted from Carpenter’s The Thing—but none of that matters when the entire tone and style are wrong. The guys who made Meet the Spartans love 300 more than this movie loves slashers. It’s like saying Seth McFarlane’s A Million Days to Die in the West is a tribute to Sergio Leone.
On the over-designed Final Girls poster, Sam Raimi (the version of the guy who directed Oz the Great and Powerful, not the one who genuinely loves horror) is quoted heralding the film as “a love letter to the ’80s slasher film.” This movie isn’t a love letter. It’s an overwritten 3 a.m. email from a stalker man-child who never understood his crush, but still can’t stop talking about her regardless. The next director hyping up his smarmy “love letter” to horror will be getting an anthrax letter, from me. Don’t hand over your Fangoria dollars to lazy, patronizing cynics. Take a chance on a five-minute short by some dumb, sincere kid from the middle of nowhere shooting Creepypasta YouTubes on her iPhone. And stop calling The Final Girls a horror movie.
E.C. Padgett lives and watches horror movies in Atlanta.
The Concourse is Deadspin’s home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter.