Surviving Grief in The Final Girls and Anna & the Apocalypse

I never expected “Bette Davis Eyes” to make me cry. Kim Carnes’ voice is certainly evocative enough on its own, a richness to her rasp that rattles you to the core. In Todd Strauss-Schulson’s 2015 horror/comedy The Final Girls, the popular 1981 pop song is recontextualized as a farewell letter to a dead loved one. I initially checked the slasher flick off my watch-list in 2020, but last year, I found myself frequently turning to its warm, glowing cinematic pages as a way to cope with my own mother’s death.

There has never been a slasher with as much heart as The Final Girls. Not even Scream and its sequels have been as gooey, campy, and deliciously comforting. And I adore the Scream series. Following the story of Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga), the film depicts not only an obvious affinity for cinema and storytelling, but demonstrates how art can truly be a conduit for healing from grief. Her mother Amanda (Malin Akerman) once starred in the salacious ‘80s B-movie “Camp Bloodbath,” and in the decades since, she can’t seem to shake the stigma that so often surrounds slashers. Even her arc on CSI as “a bipolar mistress” stands forever in its shadow.

On their way home from an audition, a sequence during which we first hear “Bette Davis Eyes,” Amanda and Max are in a terrible car crash, leading to Amanda’s tragic demise. It’s such an abrupt death, and that’s most certainly the point. Death comes in waves, often shocking the system like a dreaded polar bear plunge. And you can never be ready for it.

The Final Girls | Todd Strauss-Schulson, Groundswell Productions, and Stage 6 Films

Three years later, Max remains trapped to her grief, unable to move forward even as the world seems to have long moved on. Her BFF Gertie (Alia Shawkat) tries to convince her to finally make a move on chiseled hunk Chris (Alexander Ludwig), but Max has little interest. She has no energy for such things, and even her academics are greatly suffering.

The upcoming anniversary of her mother’s death coincides with a late-night screening of “Camp Bloodbath,” and Max begrudgingly makes an appearance. The film unfolds with all the classic slasher tropes: promiscuous teenagers, cheesy music, and a silent night stalker. When her mother, who starred as the meek, guitar-playing camp counselor Nancy, appears on screen, the light in Max’s eyes dims. Seeing Amanda appear as a vibrant human being again knocks the air from her lungs. As Nancy’s death scene looms, a sequence in which she hooks up with crop-top wearing womanizer Kurt (Adam Devine) on a water bed, Max gets flushed and bolts toward the exit to get some fresh air. But before she can escape, a fire breaks out in the theater and consumes most of the other moviegoers. In their efforts to escape, Max, Gertie, Chris, Gertie’s step-brother Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), and Chris’ ex-girlfriend/mean girl stereotype Vicki (Nina Dobrev) are sucked into the film. When they awaken, they find themselves in the opening scene of the movie.

The film then walks the viewer through the plot points of any slasher movie, but that’s not the interesting part. What makes The Final Girls a cut above the rest is its focus on accepting death and healing. For her part, Max must confront her mother, or rather the character she played, and finally let her go. The film nosedives into many of the aftereffects of grief, from living a hollow life to deteriorating mental health that impacts your ability to keep healthy friendships and relationships. As I think back to the last four months of my life, I realize how much of Max’s journey I identify with. My mother’s death was as abrupt as Amanda’s; there were signs she was nearing the end of her life (she was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2019), but the sudden ending felt jarring. There are things I never got to say, and I can’t help but feel I could have done it all differently. Like Max, I never got to tell her I loved her. Despite our toxic relationship and how things had spiraled in the last few years, the good memories sometimes haunt my dreams. I’m constantly juggling guilt, resentment, and sadness in watching her drink her life away.

The Final Girls | Todd Strauss-Schulson, Groundswell Productions, and Stage 6 Films

The Final Girls has helped me understand and know that she already knew all those things. And that no matter what I could have done, there was no changing the outcome. Sometimes, fate is a twisted sister. Once everyone is killed off by Jason Voorhees knockoff Billy Murphy (Daniel Norris), only Nancy and Max remain. Their final scene together is a poignant demonstration of healing and completes Max’s character arc. “Max, you have to let me go,” says a tearful Nancy. Even though she’s not Amanda, Nancy has been convinced (and now she fully believes and understands) that she’s just a character in a movie. She connected with Max, who spent the majority of the film trying to “save” her, on a cellular level. There are those connections we make that are brief and extremely profound.

Max crawled into the memory of her mother, snuggled up with her grief, and fell into a deep slumber. She could only wake up if she was willing to admit as much, and understand that not only is her mother truly gone 一 but in a peculiar way lives on in “Camp Bloodbath.”

It’s funny how that works. The power of cinema, I mean. My mom and I made many memories through our love of movies. My first trips to the theater are because of her. I saw The Lion King when I was 8, Titanic when I was 11, and then Halloween H20 when I was 12. Everything about those films carries an emotional significance; it’s not really about the movies themselves, but everything surrounding the experience. It was her passion for living that I remember most, and what I take with me now, like a handful of trinkets in my jean pocket. Later in life, I paid it forward and introduced her to films like The Revenant (she loved Leo, by the way) and Halloween (2018). Things were coming full circle in my life, even if I didn’t know it then.

The Final Girls | Todd Strauss-Schulson, Groundswell Productions, and Stage 6 Films

The Final Girls towers even higher when you know the backstory. Screenwriter Joshua John Miller, along with real life partner and co-writer M.A. Fortin, drew upon his grief of his father, acclaimed actor Jason Miller, most known for his work as Father Karras in the 1973 groundbreaking classic The Exorcist. “There’s something haunting, strange, confusing, and a little bit unnatural to see your parent constantly die in a film,” he said around the film’s press cycle. “We decided we were going to tell a story about death, and we were interested in talking about it in the world of the slasher film where death is totally cheap, and there’s no such thing as mourning or real human relationships.”

The film pounds with heart. In the final showdown, when Nancy sacrifices herself to Billy Murphy, we return to “Bette Davis Eyes” and come to completely understand what the film is all about. It’s far more than a targeted satire on slasher films. It examines life in its most fragile state. Like the faceless cast of characters, death is coming for all of us. The sooner we accept it, the sooner we can enjoy life for what it is: a wild, unforgettable ride.

For similar reasons, Anna and the Apocalypse, directed by John McPhail, holds a special place in my heart. It was another film I had been meaning to watch for a few years now, and I honestly don’t know how or why I had waited so long. From the first jingle of “Christmas Means Nothing Without You” over the studio logos, a fuzzy sensation lifts my spirits. Without fail, every single time I’ve watched this zany zombie musical (I had to stop logging it in Letterboxd, because it was just embarrassing), I’ve managed to burrow out of my depression, anxiety, and grief. There’s a reason it has become my No. 1 comfort film of all time.

Anna and The Apocalypse | John McPhail, Alan McDonald, and Ryan McHenry | Blazing Griffin and Vertigo Releasing

With a script co-written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, based on McHenry’s short Zombie Musical, the film doesn’t deal explicitly with grief 一 yet it does entirely. High school student Anna Shepherd (Elle Hunt) aches to get away from cookie-cutter suburbia. In her senior year, she has big plans to take a year off before going to college and travel across Australia. While her friends John (Malcolm Cumming), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), and Lisa (Marli Siu) support her decision, Anna’s widowed father Tony (Mark Benton) perhaps resents his daughter for not living up to his expectations. He has the best intentions, but his execution in expressing his emotions leaves much to be desired. “Don’t be stupid!” he seethes at one point.

Of course, Anna’s plans are futile when life throws an apocalypse right at her head. As she surmises in “Give Them a Show,” a singing duel with curmudgeon/professor Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye), “There are some things in life that you just can’t control.” But she was “born for this role,” she later sings. In her life, she’d already met death and its cruel hand. Her mother’s presence hangs over her life, and that’s likely why she vows to break free. But she can’t run away from her problems, especially when it involves grief and emotional well-being. She became fixated on a belief that the way to mend her broken heart was to cut ties with her past completely, when in reality her inability to cope had already shattered her completely.

Anna loses most of her loved ones throughout the film, including John and Lisa, and through such tragedy she grasps on the meaning of life. In “I Will Believe,” a tender duet with her dying father, she recognizes it’s not the places we run off to that define existence. It’s the people. It’s our memory of them that we hold dear. “If I had reckoned the seconds would slip from me, I’d have paid twice for the price of the memory,” they sing in unison. Sometimes, it’s only when we’re faced with death, and/or watch a loved one die, that we can truly understand.

Anna and The Apocalypse | John McPhail, Alan McDonald, and Ryan McHenry | Blazing Griffin and Vertigo Releasing

I witnessed my father’s last breath in 2014, as he was surrounded with family, and the ministry intern sang an angelic hymn. It was the quietest, most surreal moment in my life. With my mother, I visited her one last time on a Tuesday, and she died the very next morning. I am certain those experiences have shifted something inside of me; I see life through a very different lens, a brutally cold one. As Anna was met with death after death, she had to learn that humanity is as ephemeral as the seasons. And it changed her from the inside out. Her pain would soon fade, as it always does, and the memories of her parents emerge as the remaining vestiges of lives fully, unapologetically lived.

Anna and the Apocalypse beats with as much heart as The Final Girls and involves an equal amount of real world tragedy. Upon McHenry’s death (from cancer in 2015), the initial draft of the screenplay took a very different turn. “The reason that draft was so dark was because I missed my friend,” McDonald told The Telegraph. “I guess, in the story that we were always telling and what ultimately became Ryan’s story. Finding a way for us all to rediscover the joy of it was what I think kept us on target and ultimately created the movie that we’ve made now.”

McHenry lives on through the infectious joy found in songs like “Break Free,” “Hollywood Ending,” and even resident bad boy Nick’s (Ben Wiggins) macho chant “Soldier at War.” But a somber wind gusts throughout the picture in equal measure 一 from the chilly plea for connection with “Human Voice” to the holiday refrain “What a Time to Be Alive.” Anna’s journey is McHenry’s, as it is everyone else’s in the world; some of us learn hard truths sooner than others. It’s the only sure thing in this life.

Both films communicate life’s transience with great discernment and care. Anna and the Apocalypse and The Final Girls celebrate the brightness of living, but they neither avoid nor skim over the darkest parts. Life is full of pain, and we can’t pretend otherwise. But it’s through such works of art that we can find greater meaning in our own, seemingly inconsequential lives and feel the world pulse around us again. My grief may never fully dissipate (jesus, does it ever?), but I am forever thankful for horror films that make you think while also being a soothing agent to the soul. Maybe one day I can belt a show tune while killing zombies, too.

If you’d like to read more of Jason’s work, you can find it here!

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