The synopsis featured on the IMDb page for the film The Final Girls, out on DVD and Blu-ray on November 3, describes it as a comedy horror about “a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, a famous scream queen from the 1980s, [who] finds herself pulled into the world of her mom’s most famous movie. Reunited, the women must fight off the film’s maniacal killer.”
It may not sound like a film that would leave you feeling emotional, but browse through the film’s many reviews and you’ll find otherwise.
“A playful deconstruction of the slasher film that ultimately packs a surprisingly affecting punch.” – LA Times
“By the end of ‘The Final Girls,’ I found myself pleased and moved, even, by this inherently ephemeral mother-daughter story.” – RogerEbert.com
“The Final Girls is more than just a brilliant, high-concept setup — it’s also an incredibly fun homage to ’80s slasher films and their tropes as well as a surprisingly sweet look at grief, moving forward and the things we sacrifice for those we love.” – Film School Rejects
The emotional chord the film strikes is due, in part, to director Todd Strauss-Schulson ’03, who calls it a love letter to his dad.
“For me, it’s sort of the kind of movie that I love watching the most,” said Strauss-Schulson. “The ones that kind of give you the full breadth of the life experience.”
While taking The Final Girls to various film festivals over the past year, Strauss-Schulson says he has had fun sitting with audiences and getting feedback on the film—of people laughing, yelling, and crying at the screen, all in the span of 1.5 hours. It’s sweet, he says, and deeply human.
Growing up, Strauss-Schulson’s dream was to make movies. He describes himself as very compulsive, always making something: videos for comedy troupes, short films, music videos. It was an obsession.
“When I graduated and came out to LA, it was the same thing,” said Strauss-Schulson. “I remember one year, I shot, wrote, and edited something like 110 videos. It was crazy the amount of stuff I was turning out.”
A lot of it was terrible, he admits, but the experience of constantly creating helped him gain confidence and enabled him to cultivate his own style. He started directing music videos, worked at MTV Asia for eight months, created branded web viral videos for a comedy club, and shot shorts with his crew of Emerson friends. One of those shorts led to getting signed with an agent. Around the same time, while hanging out with M.A. Fortin ’00 and Joshua John Miller, friends who moved to California around the same time he did, the duo pitched the idea of The Final Girls.
A poster for The Final Girls.
“I just thought it was such a great idea, this story of a girl seeing her dead parents almost in a dream,” said Strauss-Schulson.
They began to work on the film, just as Strauss-Schulson had realized a lifelong dream—directing his first feature film, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. He had just turned 30. Four weeks before he landed the directing gig, his father passed away. It was a shocking and emotional time.
“I was dreaming of him all the time while making that movie,” said Strauss-Schulson.
While editing the Harold & Kumar sequel, he received a draft of The Final Girls from Miller and Fortin. Together, they each felt an impulse to do something about the losses in their lives. After three long years of working on the script, gathering money, and casting the film, cameras finally started rolling in 2014.
“A lot of Emersonians worked on this film,” said Strauss-Schulson. “You make a lot of friends at Emerson and you sort of stick with the people who you relate to in those formative years.”
In addition to Strauss-Schulson and Fortin, Elie Smolkin ’09 was the film’s director of photography; David Lebensfeld’s (’04) company, Ingenuity Engine, created the visual effects; Ulterior Productions, the company that Strauss-Schulson owns with Ken Franchi ’03, helped produce the film; and many of his friends in comedy helped punch up the screenplay and come up with jokes.
Strauss-Schulson says directing The Final Girls was both a cathartic and emotional experience. When asked what his dad would think of the film, he pauses. Ultimately, he’s kind of saying goodbye, letting go. He knows his dad would be proud of his creativity—that he made a personal, fun, ambitious film.
“It’s funny and it’s scary and it’s really sweet and it’s bad -ss,” said Strauss-Schulson. “I hope the audience walks out of the movie feeling better than they did going in.”