New York Comic Con kicked off this morning, and the Javits Center was already brimming by the time fans filed into see The Final Girls actress Malin Akerman and director Todd Strauss-Schulson chat about their surprisingly meta horror film, which opens in limited release and on demand October 9. Taissa Farmiga and Akerman lead a strong cast, with Farmiga playing Max, a teen reeling from the loss of her mom, and Ackerman serving as both her late mom and the character her mom played in an ’80s slasher movie. Like we said, heady stuff. Here are seven highlights from the panel.
1. Although the beating, bloody heart of the movie hearkens back to the days of ’80s slasher films, The Final Girls has some unexpected influences, including Back to the Future, Pleasantville, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. As Strauss-Schulson explained, “The horror stuff is like the cloak over the movie.”
2. Akerman flexed her chops by playing what amounts to “three characters in one.” There’s Amanda, the former scream queen turned failed actress and mother who dies suddenly in a car crash. Then there’s Nancy, the sexy camp instructor who meets an untimely demise in the movie within the movie, Camp Bloodbath. Finally, there’s another version of Nancy, one who has gained a sort of sentience. “I get to play this one-dimensional character in a really bad horror movie, and then I get to sort of realize my mortality and become three-dimensional again,” explains Akerman. “You don’t really ever know if she knows that Taissa is her daughter or not, but at least they get to say good-bye.”
3. Akerman does double duty onscreen as a grown-up mom and her scream-queen teen alter ego, but off-screen the 37-year-old actress did a great job keeping up with the other stars after hours. “You were the ringleader!” Strauss-Schulson teased, to which Akerman responded, “Yeah, for, like, two hours! And then I’d be in bed by midnight.” Strauss-Schulson, who is 35, later added that, between the tight shoot of 26 days and the lack of so-called adult supervision, “it did sort of feel like we were getting away with something.”
4. Co-writer Joshua John Miller, who appeared as a child in the movies Near Dark and Teen Witch, among others, was inspired to write the script after the death of his father, the playwright and actor Jason Miller. Name not ringing a bell? You might know him better as the guy who played Father Karras in The Exorcist. As Strauss-Schulson explained:
I went to college with Mark [Fortin] and Josh, and yeah, Josh’s dad was a really famous actor who was tremendously famous for being in The Exorcist. Josh’s father passed away, and Josh wanted to somehow write something about, you know, death, about losing a parent like that. I don’t know if you guys have ever lost anyone, but he wanted to write something serious about death. He tried to write, you know, straight melodramas, or indie whatevers, and it almost felt to them that if they could just sort of tilted it toward fiction, there would be something more truthful about it. So the big, huge concept of getting sucked into your parent’s craziest movie was very appealing. And then I lost my father also a few years ago, and that’s what appealed to me about this movie. We’re telling that story, but it’s cloaked in the most fun movie you’ve ever seen.
5. Although Akerman still doesn’t have much of a stomach for horror, Strauss-Schulson learned to love gore. “When I was a kid, I was really afraid of horror movies,” he recalled. “I remember being 9 years old and seeing, like, Fright Night, or I saw House, and I was just so — it fucked me up. I had to move into my little sister’s bedroom for six months because I could not be alone with my own thoughts at night.” His horror breakthrough was Peter Jackson’s brilliantly demented Dead Alive, which served as a gateway drug for all things gnarly. “I thought I’d be a makeup FX guy for a second,” he mentioned, but also, “it wasn’t just horror for me. I liked all the movies, and I was trying to watch all the movies in my local video store. I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a kid, and the movies that I was most attracted to were the ones where you could really feel the filmmaking.”
6. The Final Girls is quietly subversive. “What’s cool is that we just tried to take any trope, or any sort of cliché, and then just reverse it, or flip it in a way that would feel a little bit more progressive and a little bit more modern,” said Strauss-Schulson. “So you have a guy that looks like Alexander Ludwig, this sort of hunky all-American giant, but he’s sort of the only character in the movie that ever admits he’s afraid. And then we have Nina Dobrev from The Vampire Diaries, who’s amazing, and she is the mean girl, and she gets an opportunity in this movie to explain why she’s mean and to apologize for it — because she’s jealous and she’s hurt. So we tried to take all these stock ideas of characters and then, you know, bring them into the real world.”
7. Is The Final Girls the first sex-positive horror movie? Perhaps. “There’s a sort of feminist ‘Final Girl’ idea that because you’re virginal, young, and pure,” Strauss-Schulson said, “you get to survive. That’s really fucked up, and our characters know that. So what the movie’s really doing broadly is saying, everybody deserves to live. Everyone gets a moment where they feel their own mortality, and being a virgin — there’s no real virtue in that.”