In many ways The Final is a modern low-budget horror film with a difference. It doesn’t follow the more well-trodden narrative tropes of the high school slasher movie. There are no teenage tv stars or veteran character actors in the cast, no pointless sex scenes or terrified women running around in their underwear. It also doesn’t look like it was made for 50p and the acting is solid.
The narrative has clearly received a careful amount of thought, and the whole thing feels very purposeful, rather than something produced solely for the straight-to-dvd market, by filmmakers with one eye on the next stage of their careers. This is a film that intends to complicate engagement with its characters and tries to make its audience feel uncomfortable with what unfolds.
Yet, despite the fact there isn’t a summer camp in sight, nor a mother-fixated/paedophilic serial killer on the loose, The Final still manages to be rather disappointing.
The narrative premise of the film is a kind of Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) meets Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) kind of deal: bullied teenagers wreak revenge on their oppressors, staging a large-scale demonstration of their feelings (albeit in a cabin in the woods rather than in the high school itself). Like a more typical slasher, the night of revenge is a party that everyone is going too.
However, it becomes clear rather early on that the film is leaning more fully on the Elephant side of representing a high school killing, rather than one which might be more in keeping with slasher traditions, mainly through the bond between ‘the bullied’ established early on. The four (3 boys and 1 girl) are shown discussing their plans, making preparations and so on.
Whilst the clarity of this narrative decision sets the film apart, and sets the ground for a potentially very uncomfortable watching experience and dramatic reversal of sympathy from the bullied to the former-bullies, it unfortunately makes for some rather tedious watching. This is not helped by the fact that the retribution gets underway fairly early on, so there is a lot of film to spread out their torture and its justification. In fact, the film’s biggest downfall is its complete failure to recognise that an audience might latch on to what it has carefully plotted pretty early on and thus be able to appreciate the changes in sympathy it might be inviting.
Instead we are treated to long speeches about why this is happening, some oddly unaffecting or unsuspenseful moments of torture (I guess I mean this comparatively speaking – it’s never a comfortable experience watching someone’s finger be cut off, but I can think of films which invite a great deal more tension with a lot less effort).
It also ensures that the film remains highly predictable, and not just because it is working within a highly structured generic context.
For the film’s narrative to work and engage the viewer in any way there needs to be something for us to be involved in, but as much as the bullying is horrible and relentless there is never a point in which the retribution seems justified or even dramatically balanced.
I actually got to the point where I felt like the teenagers who had been bullied ought to get over it, that they should have had the strength of character to forget about the idiots who tormented them (and they are fairly idiotic).
As a result of the film’s singlemindedness in its plotting, it makes for a rather reductive consideration of high school killings, and high school in general. One of the more powerful things about a film like Elephant, whatever you make of how the film is put together or the way the story (such as it is) is told, is the ambiguity and chilling normality of what happens.
Placing an event which is at best unpredictable and incoherent, and at worst wholly unfathomable, within the generic context of horror, with all its expectations of violence and suspense, and pleasure taken in this, severely undermines its complexity, making it subject to machinations of narrative which skew the dynamic of something that is horrific.