In “The Final Girls,” teen fans watching a retro horror classic step through the screen and into the movie. They mix with the characters — doomed counselors at a summer camp menaced by a masked slasher — and wonder if they are doomed as well.
The movie-within-a-movie framework and snarky riffs on horror cliches in “Final Girls” have drawn comparisons with “The Cabin in the Woods.” “Final Girls,” though, is a different beast, and tries to locate more genuine emotion than you’d expect to find in one of these meta movies, wherein the knowing characters know, for instance, that the killer appears every time a young woman removes her bra.
Jokes aside, “Final Girls” makes a sincere attempt to explore the role of fantasy in understanding love — a “Purple Rose of Psycho,” if you will.
The movie centers on Max (Taissa Farmiga), a young woman desperate for a deeper connection with her mother (Malin Akerman), a failed actress best known for her role as the “shy girl with guitar and clipboard” in a 1980s slasher classic.
Max is watching the movie with friends when a fire in the theater forces them through the screen, where they find themselves in the rigidly predictable “reality” of the movie, unable to escape.
This situation is mostly played for laughs — Max’s movie-hip friends (Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch) have to explain the situations to the fictional characters, who are confined by the script to be horny, stupid and literal-minded.
But “Final Girls” is quite serious about the relationship between Max and her mother, which takes place in a twilight mingling of preposterous situations and actual feeling.
For a while, the movie is funny and admirably strange — Max meets her mother as a contemporary, becomes her friend, and a bond develops, even as Max conceals the true nature of their developing relationship.
Problems arise, though, when “Final Girls” tries to maintain this tone while reaching for gory laughs — mother and daughter bond, while the mangled bodies pile up around them (but not too mangled — it’s PG-13).
“Final Girls” eventually loses its way, but the epilogue is funny (this is the first movie to use a Rubik’s cube as a screaming shock beat) and the blooper reel is worth sticking around for.
THE FINAL GIRLS
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Nina Dobrev, Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Alexander Ludwig.
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson.
Running time: 1:28.
Rated: PG-13, for horror violence, some crude and sexual material, language and drug use.