Now playing at the Sie FilmCenter and Alamo Drafthouse is the meta-horror-comedy The Final Girls, a film that celebrates one of the greatest and most underappreciated character types in modern cinema: the horror movie's sole survivor.
A cross between the meta-horror stylings of Scream and Cabin in the Woods and the fourth-wall peeling of The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Final Girls wears its bloody heart securely on its sleeve. Max, the daughter of a deceased horror actress still famous for playing a sexy scream queen in fictional ‘80s slasher Camp Bloodbath, attends a screening of her mother’s film when a catastrophe occurs, sending audience members scrambling. In the chaos, Max and her pals awaken to find themselves inside the film with a complete knowledge of the horror formula and a batch of unsuspecting camp counselors — Max’s deceased mother included — whom they have to wisen up before masked killer Billy murders them all in the final reel. The film succeeds at having fun with slasher tropes while maintaining a unique sense of emotional underpinning as Max gets a second chance with her mother. The film also contains one of cinema’s most triumphant stripteases as well as one of its saddest stripteases. Oh, and plenty of blood — or is it corn syrup? Nope, it's blood.
For decades — you can read some great essays in Carol Clover’s genius examination Men, Women and Chainsaws — the final girls of horror have been shining beacons of feminism in exploitation films that otherwise seem to preach that, yes, boys and girls, drinking, drugging and sexing will lead you to the business end of a machete. But it is the perseverance of horror heroines that upends those lessons by introducing us to characters who grow up incredibly fast while they’re running for their lives and losing their virginity, as it were, by facing their fears, rising up and taking down the monsters standing in the way of their adulthood. We dashed through the woods of some of the best horror films of the past forty years to find the queens who fought their way out of some slicey-dicey situations to become final girl supremes: 10) Erin Harson (Sharni Vinson) You're Next (2013)
It’s bad enough having to meet your boyfriend’s family over dinner, but when that dinner is interrupted by a home invasion and the family members start dropping like flies, it officially becomes the worst. Quiet girlfriend Erin seems destined to become a victim as well, but You’re Next’s skill at revealing all of the character’s backstory slowly, including some of the young lady's handy skills, turns Erin’s final fight into a full-on battle royale. Think Home Alone, but with a lot more blood and dismemberment. 9) Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1987, 1988)
Not many final girls can say that they’ve been to hell and back — but that’s just one of the many credentials that earned sweet, innocent Kirsty a spot on this list. Discovering the strange puzzle box left by her uncle Frank introduces her to the terrifying pleasure demon Pinhead and his Cenobites, which she must elude while also avoiding the murderous intentions of her stepmother, who is using blood to ickily reform Frank’s body. Not only does Kirsty have a lot to take on in order to reach the finish line in this first chapter, but she returns for the sequel, stuck in a mental hospital after attempting to explain what happened in the first movie — and she finds herself in hell itself, trying desperately to keep Pinhead and company from crossing from the underworld into our world — and by gum, she does it. 8) Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) Suspiria (1977)
Sweet American dance student Suzy arrives at her new dance academy in Germany just in time to witness a bizarre series of events and deaths that seem to indicate that the school is being run by a coven of witches. When a spell causes Suzy to fall ill and keeps her curiosity at bay, she fights through and uses her brawn to kill creepy bats and avoid getting her throat slit by a phantom slasher — and uses her brain to solve the riddle of where the creepy faculty is headed every night. Upon discovering the witchy den, she must take out its leader and get the hell out of Dodge before the whole academy bursts into flames. Not bad for a tiny dancer. 7) Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) Alien (1977)
One of our greatest sci-fi films, Alien is also a slasher at its core, even though at the time it was made, the template for the genre had yet to be solidified. In a nutshell, crazy killer (the alien) begins picking off the Nostromo crew one by one until seemingly meek and put-down warrant officer Ellen Ripley has to rely on nerves of steel and figure out how to elude a terrifying monster and get off the ship with her beloved cat. The film’s final gotcha moment, just when you think that everything is over, is classic slasher movie, complete with a brief, sexy reveal for our heroine, who goes from vulnerable to badass in a matter of seconds. “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.” 6) Ginny (Amy Steel) Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Though the original Friday’s Alice (Adrienne King) gets the credit for being that franchise’s first final girl, Part II’s Ginny is the most resourceful, headstrong and put-upon of the gals. She works out the kinks of killer Jason’s history on her own, and is put through the final-girl ringer: discovering dead friends, running through the woods, discovering her car won’t start, hiding under a bed — and when she stumbles upon Jason’s shrine to his mother featuring her head and fancy blue sweater, she has the wherewithal to put the sweater on in a bid to confuse Jason and use that moment to take him out. And, of course, the second-chance gotcha takes her out momentarily — but in the end, she’s the only person alive being wheeled out to a waiting ambulance. Good job, Ginny. 5) Jess (Olivia Hussey) Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark’s dark holiday tale has the distinction of accidentally starting the slasher formula and setting the template with its tale of a deranged killer hiding out in the attic of a sorority house the week before Christmas, making prank phone calls to the sisters and taking them out one by one. Quiet, pretty Jess seems like she’s next on the chopping block until a reveal about a pregnancy and planned abortion (big news in ‘74!) gives her a one-up on the survival rung. When the killer makes his last murder run, leaving Jess for last, her discovery of her friends' bodies and then the mistake of running upstairs and then into the basement when she should’ve just run out the front door becomes a watershed moment in the do's and dont's of the final-girl survival code. 4) Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The same year that Black Christmas came out, Tobe Hooper’s shocker laid down its own contributions to the slasher formula and the criteria needed for a proper final girl. In this case, poor Sally earns her stripes by escaping a crazed, chainsaw-wielding cannibal (most notably by throwing herself out of a closed second-story window), only to endure an intense psychological torture session at the hand of Leatherface’s family. Sally earns her heroine purple heart, though, for not getting the satisfaction of dispatching her captors in the end. And, based on the final shots of her screaming/laughing at all of this madness while being raced away in a pickup truck by a stranger, she may not have won the battle so much as lost her mind. 3) Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) Halloween, Halloween II and Halloween H20 (1978, 1981, 1998)
The first “official” slasher film to lay out the path of horror heroines, John Carpenter’s touchstone Halloween was inspired by the skeleton of Black Christmas but added some much-needed skin to the body. This is the story of Michael Myers, a killer with “the devil’s eyes” who comes home to Haddonfield, Illinois, to murder a clutch of babysitters on Halloween night. The story is also Laurie’s: The bookish nerd doesn’t want to party with her friends, but just wants to babysit and get some homework done and maybe hand out some candy. Little did she know that she would end up impacting the DNA of the final-girl archetype for decades to come. Her brilliant innocence goes from cardigan and tartan skirt to tight jeans and unintentionally sexy men’s dress shirt. She quickly becomes a woman by surviving the death of her careless friends with her will to survive and, most important, fighting back against the bogeyman that pulls us all back into our childhood fears. Laurie lives to tell the tale through Halloween II and, twenty years later, in Halloween H20, as a mom and hardened survivor. Let’s not dwell on the fact that she’s cheaply bumped off in the subsequent Halloween: Resurrection. Instead, let’s honor the prototypical final girl. 2) Sidney Prescott/ Gale Weathers (Neve Campbell/Courteney Cox) Scream quadrology (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011)
Sidney Prescott deserves a ton of credit for making it through four chapters of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s meta-slasher classic. It is the murder of her mother that sets off the various killers who make her face the target of their stabbing knives — but let’s not forget that although Sidney’s sense and sensibility lead her to sharpen the skills of the dozens of final girls who ran and fought before her, she had a little help in cutting her path with plucky, agitating journalist Gale Weathers by her side. Though they didn’t always get along, they represent two different styles of resilience in a time of horrifying crisis and provide a Thelma & Louise touch of feminism, albeit covered in blood and gore. The series could’ve used a dark twist by bumping one of the duo off in the fourth film — but considering that we will probably never see a part five, we can keep our loving, last memories of the duo as surviving slasher sisters. 1) Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1984, 1987, 1994)
Ladies and gentlemen, all hail the queen of the final girls: long may she reign. Nancy Thompson singlehandedly took on the biggest of bads, Freddy Krueger, a spectral entity that used dreams and nightmares to extract his bloody path of revenge. The power of Nancy comes not just from her ability to navigate dreams and reality with common sense and aplomb, but from the fact that from the beginning of her ordeal, she is never the victim. Instead, she thinks fast on her feet in order to confront the terror that is coming after her and her friends, forcing herself awake until she is ready to meet her monster on a level battleground. Back in reality, Nancy already has to deal with an absent cop father and a dramatic, drunk mother, which is probably why she can take control of a situation that she can affect with her actions, strength and words. She carries this heavy crown into the third and seventh chapters of the Nightmare franchise (dying only once in the middle), becoming the poster child for horror heroines forever by teaching us all that the moment you give your problems power, it feeds them, and that a handful of sharp knives is no match for brains, beauty and a will to survive. One of his greatest creations, Wes Craven’s Nancy is a testament to how you don't just survive a terrifying murderscape in our wildest dreams, but, in fact, survive life itself.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE...
Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Keith Garcia is a filmmaker, writer and secret agent looking for love and the perfect slice of pizza. If he looks familiar, it's probably because he introduced a film you watched in Denver sometime between 1996 and 2014.