One horror subgenre that hasn’t enjoyed even a slight vogue recently is the slasher, laid permanently to rest by dear, departed Wes Craven in Scream. After that thorough deconstruction, the only slashers that crawled out were a couple more clever-clever – but not actually that clever – Scream-alikes, before the horror genre as whole shrugged and moved on to new and exciting things like the torture porn and the found footage. Wes’ legacy lives, with this year offering two similarly-named – but not similar in plot – takes on the final-girl trope, Final Girl and Last Girl Standing; one “feminist slasher movie”, Some Kind of Hate; and one 90s throwback, Most Likely to Die.
Of the bunch, Final Girl, from photographer and first-time film director Tyler Shield, is the very clear standout. In it, former Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is trained by former Hunger Games controller Wes Bentley in a programme that turns her into a La Femme Nikita-esque elite killer. Her specialty is acting as prey for misogynist killers, before turning things around on them and giving them a taste of their own medicine. The film never bothers to go into much detail on who’s running the programme or why it’s necessary to beat the killers at their own game, rather than just executing or arresting them straight-off. Even its setting is unclear; there are glimpses of a hotel room and a diner, but mostly events take place in the blackest, mistiest woods, shot with the most astonishingly beautiful night photography I’ve seen all year. The mild surrealism, and the film’s tendency to value mood and style over narrative, will never make it a smash hit, but if you accept its slightly far-fetched premise then it is an astonishing experience, as hard, black and dazzlingly beautiful as obsidian.
Last Girl Standing is a more obvious deconstruction of the final-girl archetype, making use of the same plot that would probably occur to you, too, if someone asked you out of the blue to pitch a final-girl deconstruction: Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) survived a massacre in the woods, watching all of her friends killed by a memorably bizarre deer-headed man in a fursuit. Now it’s four years later and she works in the dry-cleaner’s, keeps her head down, and tries to keep it together, which is not easy when she is continually seized by visions of the killer coming back for her. Can he really have survived the events of the (non-existent) first film? Or is Camryn just crazy? I’ll do my best not to spoil the ending, but it manages the tricky task of being both unbelievable and totally predictable, not to mention fairly insulting to the real-life survivors of serial killers. Of course, Last Girl Standing puts itself in a strange and uncomfortable position by trying simultaneously to have fun with the silly tropes surrounding slasher films, and to be a serious and sensitive film about real-life trauma. It would perhaps have benefitted from some of the open detachment from reality that Final Girl exhibits.
Some Kind of Hate, supposedly the feminist offering in our quartet of slashers, never seemed to me to do or to say anything particularly feminist, but I’m unsurprised to hear the word bandied around in its marketing, since it is typical of the film’s misguidedness that its makers find it difficult to articulate its themes. It is supposed to be a picture about the destructive effects of bullying, neatly made symbolic with a killer whose self-inflicted wounds show up simultaneously on her aggressors/victims, but, as well-intentioned as it is, it is never able to convincingly say much of anything; rather, it seems to splash around out of its depth, grasping for An Important Statement. That’s a shame, because the direction is occasionally impressive, and the basic concept behind the villain is potentially a very interesting one. It goes without saying, of course, that the theme of victims perpetuating their aggression is dealt with much more thoroughly in ParaNorman.
Most Likely to Die is the slasher most obviously indebted to Scream and its imitators, and also the one that is not interested in making any big statements. It’s just here to have fun, and that’s exactly what it does, with a plot which sees the attendees of a high-school reunion killed off according to their yearbook “Most Likely To”s (“Most Likely to Break Hearts”, “Most Likely to Have Her Name In Lights”, “Most Likely to Eat Anything”, and so on). But this is no random thrill-killer at work; their deaths are sort of deserved, because they all collaborated on a particularly cruel prank against their classmate John Doe, scratching out his features and writing “DIE” across his forehead in his yearbook picture. His caption was, of course, altered to read “Most Likely to Die” (a strange thing to say of someone: our odds of death are 100%, all of us). Now they’re being stalked by a killer in graduation robes and a papier mâché mask which resembles John Doe’s defaced photograph. He also has a mortar board which doubles up as an Oddjob-like throwing weapon, which I’m afraid was a bit too much silliness for me. But silliness is the name of the game in Most Likely to Die, and despite some wooden acting, some clunky dialogue, and far too much screentime for a charmless Perez Hilton, it is easy to enjoy on its own terms, even if those terms boil down to nothing more ambitious than “copy Scream”.