Alumnus screens slasher satire The Final Girls

by Natalie Busch / Beacon Staff • February 3, 2016

The horror movies of the ‘80s are known for having flashback sequences, vintage hairstyles, and a deranged killer on the loose. Per the rules of the genre, the only way to survive is to be the last woman alive left to kill the villain. The Final Girls, a film which showed in the Bright Family Screening Room last Tuesday night, is a modern sendup of those decade old clichés.

The director, Todd Strauss-Schulson, ‘03, and visual and media arts graduate, was on hand after the film for a question and answer session. Anna Feder, the director of programming for the Bright Lights Series, moderated the discussion. According to Feder, the audience of roughly 100 people included students, alumni, and members of the public.

The movie stars Taissa Farmiga as Max and Malin Akerman as her actress mother Amanda, who died in a car crash. On the third anniversary of Amanda’s death, Max reluctantly attends a screening of Camp Bloodbath, the slasher movie her mother starred in 30 years prior. But after a freak accident, Max and her friends find themselves trapped inside the film, forced to use their knowledge of the horror genre to survive and escape. 

The film’s genre is difficult to define, with Strauss-Schulson naming Back to the Future, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and even Terms of Endearment as influences. Although it draws on slasher elements, Strauss-Schulson said that the mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of the story.

“It’s an emotional story cloaked in a horror movie and in slasher genre deconstruction,” Strauss-Schulson said. “That wasn’t like we sort of crammed that in after the fact. That was the focus.”

Life partners M.A. Fortin, ‘00, a visual and media arts Emerson graduate, and Joshua John Miller wrote The Final Girls. Miller’s father, the late Jason Miller, starred as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist

“[Joshua John Miller] has the experience of grieving his father in a theater watching his dad die on screen,” Strauss-Schulson said. “So the idea of doing a story about loss and grief in the middle of a genre that didn’t take death seriously at all, that cinematic idea felt really potent and clever.”

Elie Smolkin, ‘09, the director of photography, is also a visual and media arts Emerson alumna, which Strauss-Schulson said is no coincidence. 

“You move out to LA, and you cling to each other like creative soulmates,” Strauss-Schulson said. “You help each other and you lift each other up.”

Alex Monto, a sophomore visual and media arts major who attended the screening, said he was drawn to the Q&A specifically because Strauss-Schulson is an alumnus. 

“To see people like that really land it from Emerson is really cool,” Monto said. “We can identify with him and imagine ourselves going down that path.”

Monto, who said he attends Bright Lights screenings often, said he knew Strauss-Schulson as the director of A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas.

“Having your first movie be a blockbuster in a well established series is something that really piqued my interest,” Monto said. “And then going from that to The Final Girls. It seemed like he had quite the story. And he did.” 

In the discussion, Strauss-Schulson shared his industry experiences with the audience. 

“I think that it’s fair to say that, for me, and a lot of contemporaries that graduated in the same year, it was seven or eight years before there was a taste or a moment where you felt like you could do it for a living,” Strauss-Schulson said. 

For Strauss-Schulson, that moment finally came in 2008 when he made Mano-a-Mano, a short film about two straight men in need of money, who are both competing for the job of a gay phone sex operator. 

“I had done TV shows and commercials and videos and no one cared, and then I made a gay phone sex video and everyone came calling,” Strauss-Schulson said.

Strauss-Schulson said he added a lot of humor to Fortin and Miller’s script, but the comedic aspect of the film became easy once he cast Thomas Middleditch of Silicon Valley, Adam DeVine of Workaholics, Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development, and newcomer Angela Trimbur.

“For me, it’s so fun because I get to sit back and almost have a comedy show for an audience of one presented to me,” Strauss-Schulson said. “Some of the best jokes are improvised.” 

Although the audience in the Bright laughed often, Strauss-Schulson said the film is moving in its own right.

“The idea was that if you could laugh for the first hour, then that would open you up to want to cry,” Strauss-Schulson said. “You’d be warmed up a little bit.”

Strauss-Schulson recently secured a midnight screening of the film slated for April at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. He said production of a sequel to The Final Girls would be dependent on money and audience demand but that he would love to make one with the same cast.

“I got them involved as much as possible with the film,” Strauss-Schulson said. “It felt like making movies in college and high school. It felt like a family. It was wonderful.”