The Final Girl (a.k.a that one girl who survives to the end by usually being a virtuous sort, whether that means being a “good girl” and/or a virgin) is a horror trope that’s been shredded to pieces. The bloodbath began back when we got the first wave of slasher films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Halloween) and has continued into the modern era, where chopping up these sorts of tropes is both a sort of commentary and an innovation (see: Sidney Prescott in the Scream films, Erin in You’re Next, Dana in Cabin in the Woods). But it hasn’t been until recently that we’ve gotten films that focused on the final girl trope exclusively, with this year bringing both the summer release Final Girl (starring, get this, Scream Queens actress Abigail Breslin) and what’s sure to be a fall fave, Todd Strauss-Schulson‘s The Final Girls.
The horror-comedy, which is a real treat for genre fans and the genre averse alike, definitely has a female focus, with the main story following Farmiga’s Max as she attempts to deal with the loss of her mother (Akerman’s Amanda/Nancy). Shortly into the film, which comes out in theatres and on VOD today, Max and a few friends (Alia Shawkat’s Gertie, Dobrev’s Vicki, Thomas Middleditch’s Duncan and Alexander Ludwig’s Chris) end up entering the plot of Camp Bloodbath, an ’80s horror movie her mom became mildly famous for, and this, of course, is the perfect playground for covering death and the grief that follows (wait until you see what they do with “Bette Davis Eyes”).
Strauss-Schulson and Final Girls stars Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman sat down with Cinefilles before the film’s TIFF premiere last month (just imagine the screams of delight from horror and Nina Dobrev fans flooding the Ryerson Theatre on the final night of Midnight Madness!). With Galloween approaching, you know we couldn’t help but ask them about how these female characters relate to the women in horror that came (or didn’t come because of other sexist kind of tropes) before them.
I love that this film is about a mother-daughter relationship because so often in the horror genre we get mother-son relationship, which can almost be fodder for comedy now as people harken back to Mrs. Bates and Norman, and Mrs. Voorhees and Jason. How important was developing that relationship and its relationship to grief and getting over the loss of someone?
Todd-Strauss Schulson: Well, the movie is personal to me. I lost my father a couple of weeks before I made my first film, which made for that experience to be really intense and very crazy. When I was editing that movie, Mark [Fortin] and Josh [John Miller], who wrote the movie, sent me the script and it touched me so much because … I got it, I know what that feels like.
What was happening in my life at that point was, while I was making that movie and I was editing it, I was dreaming about my father every night. Five nights a week, he was coming to me in my dreams. It was lovely because it felt like he was alive in a way. And when I read the script, I was like, ‘That’s what that is.’ This is a girl who gets a second chance to be with her dead parent in the middle of sort of a dream.
Like, it’s not a dream, but it’s a sort of a dreamworld. You get sucked into a movie and movie’s a dream! But I get it and that’s what I really gravitated towards and I wanted to do that. The fact that was a mother and daughter, that was in the script. And the idea of the final girl … that genre’s really female-centric. The impulse to make a movie that’s about final girls and the strength of women and a group of women supporting it each other and trying to be a little more progressive and little bit more modern about the whole thing was very conscious on all of our [behalves]. Certainly the writers’.
So that’s where it came from. Certainly it being a movie about grief was very conscious and then telling a story about that stuff that wasn’t just a melodrama. Telling that story cloaked in a fun sort of crazy [way] and in a genre that doesn’t take death very seriously. That idea [grief in a genre that doesn’t take death seriously] was in the script and I thought that was really smart and I just wanted to be involved with it.
How did you want Max and Amanda to stand out from the final girls that we’ve seen before, but also borrow from them? Because we’re working in this movie within the movie that has to follow those tropes too.
Malin Akerman: I think, as an actor going into it, you can’t really do that to yourself and think of tropes. You walk right into and you create these characters and they are whatever they become. So you draw from the reality of the situations that you’re in and because our characters were the ones who kind of ground the story, it was all about making it as real as possible from moment to moment and what they’re experiencing in that moment.
TSS: Yeah. So like the shy girl, that’s a cliche. Shy girl with a clipboard, that’s a cliche. An ethereal virgin, that’s sort of a cliche. But in the movie, we’re sort of trying to find reversals as much as we could. We felt really free making it and trying to be innovative and break a lot of rules and that was very, very conscious.
We just tried to make everything as three-dimensional as possible. So it’s not just the shy girl with the clipboard. It’s the shy girl who realizes that she has mortality. It’s the shy girl who realizes she may die one day – that’s kind of a big deal! You have all the female characters kind of loving each other and being really strong together. You have all the male characters being the more sensitive ones. You have that scene of Thomas and Alia and Alia’s being the aggressor and Thomas is being like, ‘You’re hurting my feelings.’
Taissa Farmiga: Love that scene.
TSS: You don’t really see that in movies that much, but that’s very true to the life I’m living. That’s what I’m around all the time and we wanted as much of that around as possible. We wanted the movie to be really disruptive in all ways. In style. In what it’s doing to the genre. Visually. What’s it’s doing emotionally. So, every time we saw a rule and how someone else was doing it, we just tried to come up with a better thing. We’d try to think four steps ahead.
Did you have any final girls in mind when you were playing Max?
TF: Not at all!
Did you build her from yourself more?
TF: Well, I didn’t think of Max as the Final Girl. I mean, I knew at the end she was going to have to find the strength to stand up and be the final girl to defeat this guy in hopes of saving her mom. So I was honestly just playing that realness. Like, okay she wants to save her mom, she wants to do this, so that’s where her strength is coming from.
Yes, there was some of the movie magic strength. But it was also the emotion that she felt and the realness.
TSS: That’s such an intellectual question, ‘Which final girls?’ I mean, when we were writing it we were going back in and trying to find all the stuff to make it part of this lineage. But when these guys, when they started working on it couldn’t be quite so analytical about it like, ‘We’re taking this part from Nancy [from a Nightmare on Elm Street] and this part from…’
MA: You have to get out of your head! Or else it’s bad acting.
TSS: Like, how do you make these people feel real. Like it’s a real thing, really happening.
Yeah and those girls you mention, the Nancy, the Sidney [from Scream], that’s why they worked. They had their own real traumas to deal with and had to still find strength from it.
Ladies, if you could go back and play a final girl from the past, who would you play?
TSS: Should I pull up a list of final girls? [Laughs]
Sorry, I’m not a horror girl! I love the questions, but I just wish I could pick someone!
What about like someone from Scream?
TF: I watched Scream the night before I auditioned for this! I was terrified. I watched it at 3 a.m.
How did you deal with the first scene of it? With Drew Barrymore?
TF: I don’t know! [Laughs]
TSS: Ripley! Ripley from Aliens!
MA: These are his favourite final girls. [Laughs]
TSS: [Taissa’s] seven years old.
TF: I was just so nervous about the audition that I watched it and whatever I unconsciously took from it, I was just like, ‘How do I do Max? How do I get in this girl’s head?’
TSS: I think the final girl thing was kind of secondary. It was part of the concept of the movie. It’s in the title of the movie and it’s kind of the container for the movie. But once you get into the story, it’s more personal filmmaking in the middle of genre filmmaking.
I get it, but I just feel like you can’t not talk about these women that came before and inspired this. And it’s kind of fun!
TF: She loves it!
MA: That’s great.
TSS: [to Malin and Taissa] Just say Sigourney Weaver from Aliens! Ripley from Aliens.
MA: That’s an amazing film. But I’m not a big horror movie buff. I mean, I have seen some of them. I have seen Scream and Neve Campbell is an awesome final girl, I’d say.
What about Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween?
MA: Never saw it!
How about Psycho?
MA: Yeah, I saw that!
TSS: Texas Chainsaw!
TF: The horror just sticks with me.
MA: Yeah, me too. I can’t sleep for weeks!
Is it every part of the genre that bothers you, or specific films?
MA: I don’t know what it is. I like the journey for sure and I’ve tried and watched some that I really do like. I love The Shining and Carrie and there are some classics that are really well-made, but it will never be my go-to, and not for any other reason that certain cringe-worthy moments that I just can’t get out of my head and I can’t sleep at night.
It’s unfortunate because I appreciate them and I think the fantasy that comes with making horror films is incredible. But I am not the target audience.
TF: I’m just a sensitive soul! That’s what it is.
MA: You are a sensitive soul!
TF: My sister [Vera Farmiga], she’s shooting The Conjuring 2 and she was just talking to me about how she’s watching these exorcism videos and that night I woke up at 3 a.m. and I couldn’t go back to sleep and my mind was just racing. Going to bed I didn’t think about it, but it gets in my brain.
I’m sensitive, man. [Laughs]
I’m trying to think of a movie to tell you to watch now!
TSS: Who’s your favourite final girl?
Max is excellent, but it’s probably Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street.
TSS: But isn’t she kind of annoying?
She is, but she actually had hella courage. She was like, ‘I’m gonna turn on you, Freddy and I’m gonna take control!’
TSS: But she’s, like, annoying at acting. [Laughs]
I guess. Maybe I just love A Nightmare on Elm Street.
TSS: I love A Nightmare on Elm Street. What’s your favourite one?
Third one! Dream Warriors!
TSS: So good! I love [Dream Master] too.
Oh, it’s excellent. The final girl is great in it too!
The Final Girls comes out on VOD and in select theatres today.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.