The “Final Girl” concept is hardly anything new to horror. It’s been a fundamental component of the slasher genre ever since it first appeared in the ‘70s, and later being coined by Carol J. Clovers in the ‘90s. It’s a theory, which discusses the lone female survivor of horror films, that’s never really left the consciousness of the genre through all of these years, but now more than ever horror seems to be having a renaissance with the “Final Girl” rhetoric. This past year alone has seen the release of films like Last Girl Standing, Final Girl, and The Final Girls, among others not only directly address the topic, but also expertly subvert it. Horror has gotten more reflexive than ever and women are the ones that are flexing its muscle, with Final Girl, Last Girl Standing, and The Final Girls being the prime examples.
Tyler Shields’ Final Girl chronicles a young girl, Veronica (Abigail Breslin), being recruited by a man named William (Wes Bentley) who has lost his family and is eager for revenge, with the equally jilted and impressionable Veronica being the perfect tool in said circumstance. What follows is William’s complete metamorphosis of Veronica into an efficient killing machine that can finally end this cycle of violence that is being perpetuated. In that respect the film uses the horror genre and the “Final Girl” construct as a means for freedom and confidence.
Predominantly the “Final Girl” concept reduces women to victims (or at the best, survivors), but here gender roles are unequivocally swapped with the norm not being defined by how it used to be. As Veronica mounts her attack on the four men that have been victimizing and murdering women in the area, we see that this time around the men are the powerless ones that get slotted into the victim roles. The film (which just as effectively could have been titled Final Boy based on the work that it does) really tries to make the men’s powerlessness clear. They’re emasculated in a number of ways, whether it’s through Veronica’s training, her insider knowledge, or the fact that she’s drugged them all. On the reverse of this, we’re repeatedly shown scenes of Veronica becoming more capable and empowered through her work with William, whether it’s getting her accustomed to being barefoot in the woods, learning how to fight and not be reliant on guns, or building up a resistance and understanding of the drug that she’s dosed them with. Veronica is seldomly shown to not be in control and it’s a deliberate move to help emphasize the point Final Girl is making.
More of how Final Girl bends the conventions of the genre and the role that women fill in it can be seen with the corresponding insecurity shown by the men in the film’s final act. The last surviving member of the men, Jameson, is a sniveling mess who is reduced to lying about the number of women he killed so that he can feel like more of a “man” and intimidate Veronica. He tells her they’ve killed 21 girls when she knows that the truth is actually 11. The thing is, 11 murders is still an intimidating number, but this is just such a pissing contest to the men in every respect. If there are a few extra inches that are up for grabs, they’ll go for it, with Veronica thankfully undercutting all of this.
Veronica ends up becoming a truly terrifying predator by the film’s conclusion, but it’s a beast that’s been built through the scorning of other women. She’s not just attacking these men to feel powerful, but rather these are guys that systematically hurt women and Veronica is solving a bigger problem that’s entirely genre-fueled. The film takes the time to show you that Jameson and his crew of men prey on dejected, dependent women as well (also blondes, always blondes), with them using the self-imposed power of their gender to feel superior. What Veronica is doing here is necessary to not only end all of this, but begin the revolution where these men aren’t being bolstered by their gender, but targeted instead.
It’s interesting for a film that is so consumed with gender politics and how the genre affects them to choose to have a man be training Veronica as opposed to a woman. This isn’t being done so as to say that she needs a man to become powerful, but rather, in a film where gender is pitted at odds against each other so mercilessly, this acts as a reminder that the two can still be decent to each other and it’s not always such a negative paradigm. As much as Final Girl does in beginning the conversation about how this construct is opening up the genre, Last Girl Standing digs in ever deeper.
Benjamin R. Moody’s Last Girl Standing is interested in the idea of the horror genre being used as a weapon and a means of desensitizing. Here we see the story of Camryn (Akasha Villalobos), the lone survivor of a massacre that plagued her five years earlier. Now we see her trying to pick up the pieces and move on with her fragile life when suddenly danger seems like it might be back to follow her. Rather than the independence and freedom that Final Girl posited for its women, Last Girl Standing focuses on how violence can debilitate and infect a woman after the fact, but also how being designated the victim role can be an experience that goes on far beyond the “end” of something, too.
The fascinating thing being championed in this film is the idea of women becoming stronger through the trauma of being attacked by men, as Camryn here is eventually revealed to be the victimizer, but only as a result of what she’s been through and the damage it’s done to her. She might ultimately be the one with power here, but it’s purely in the physical sense. When it comes to her mental state, she’s beyond feeble. She’s not even aware that she’s committing this violence.
In that sense, the narrative being presented here isn’t even so much of one that’s men versus women, but really us versus ourselves. If we don’t have a strong enough foundation in place then the trauma that we’ve been through will overwhelm us and warp our perceptions, as is the case here. Camryn’s past trauma still transforms who she is, just like it did with Veronica, but rather than reinvigorating her, it permanently shatters her and keeps her fragile.
Accordingly, Camryn is utterly unaware of how she’s subverting the genre here, whereas there’s a modicum of awareness in the other two films being explored. As a result of her ignorance to this she’s more susceptible than the protagonists from the other movies, enhancing the genre’s danger and her status as a victim. Similarly, all three films here have our protagonists dealing or recovering from trauma, but Camryn is the only one displaying PTSD symptoms. This seems to be more proof of the genre’s propensity to attack her, whereas this is more of a conversation with the heroines in the other movies. Their past is something that can help inform them, whereas in Camryn’s case it is purely a negative that she can’t escape from. Even characters from the other films have allies in their battle against horror, but Camryn is turned into her own worst enemy by how the horror genre has warped her. She can’t even trust herself! Last Girl Standing does much to show how horror is being made more reflexive through the “Final Girl” construct, but The Final Girls has even more to say on the matter.
Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls is the most fully realized of the three films here, with it also appropriately taking on the deepest perspective of the bunch, the idea of using the horror genre and the “Final Girl” theory as therapy and a healing process. Simply put, Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends are transported into the ‘80s slasher film, Camp Bloodbath, which her mother (Malin Akerman)—now deceased—starred in. Once the initial shock has worn off, Max uses this horror film as a way to move on past the loss of her mother. It’s even through knowledge of the genre and the rules of how these films work that is ultimately responsible for their survival.
Elsewhere we see other characters using the horror film to overcome their own personal obstacles too, almost like the film is acting as a purgatory of sorts until they are capable of improving themselves. Arguably Veronica and Camryn have bettered themselves by the end of their respective ordeals too, but the communal aspect of healing and the therapeutic feeling conveyed in The Final Girls is absent. To expand on that, The Final Girls is also a deeply cooperative effort where people—both real and fictional—have to work together in order to survive. There’s no loan wolf mentality present here. This is all about the good of the many translating to the good of the whole.
Of the three horror films touched on, this is also the one that leans hardest into comedy, and by laughing are you not going through your own mini-therapy session so to speak? Humor allows you the distance to move on and joke about what’s happened, whereas the other films don’t allow any time for a comedic interlude, with therapy not being their priority. Comedy is a necessary component of emotion, which is obviously integral to the breakthroughs caused in therapy, and so the other films being void of this keeps them held off from the degree of depth that’s accessed here.
Furthermore, much like how therapy involves looking into the past in order to heal yourself for the future, The Final Girls relies on the conventions and tropes of ‘80s horror as a way of informing itself and building its tone. Final Girl and Last Girl Standing, while hinting at themes and ideas from ‘80s horror fare, never make it explicit, whereas The Final Girls essentially sends its cast back in time. The film’s poster is even aping on ‘80s horror iconography and pin-up film art, an unnecessary—albeit appreciated—touch.
All of these films enforce the idea of this trauma being cyclical and our characters being caught up in an endless loop until the genre let’s them free. The closest we have to an escape is in The Final Girls, but even there the victory is subverted into yet another waiting room that needs to be cleared. Maybe they’ll get out, but that’s the happiest takeaway to deduce from that. They might even be better off within the horror film. At least they know what the rules are there.
In the end, while we have seen horror progressing wildly as a genre as evidenced through these three films and what they’ve done with the “Final Girl” concept, the horror genre itself is still ultimately what’s calling the shots. As much as these horror movies have additionally given women freedom and new avenues of agency, they (and we) are still horror’s bitch. We might have a bigger haunted campground to play around in, but it’s still gated off. We need to use the genre to excel from the genre, and we can’t do that without constantly looking over our shoulders and jumping at every weird shadow or noise in the dark.
But we wouldn’t have it any other way.