Summary: Who doesn't want to see horrific bullies get the just desserts in a high school horror flick? Unfortunately, what could be of been an effortless story of nerds gone bad turns tries to salvage itself from the torture porn references it makes by extended moral discussion on its themes. The end result is goreless, only slightly thrilling, and it rests entirely on your ability to get into the mood before you can enjoy it.
That is my primary response to Joey Stewart's The Final. After a short black and white intro in which a scarred girl is looked upon by others and she screams "Do you think I wanted to look like this!?"; we are taken back to high school where four teens are relentlessly picked on by an entire network of bullies. Then the plot unfolds and these four teens are apparently horror buffs who now want to use their horror-cred to get back at the bullies. Which they plan outloud in the school cafeteria. Still, I will give them that weird lapse because outside of a few awkward angles and having what essentially are college sluts act like high school sluts; the start of this film is brilliant. Think Elephant as a horror movie. Teens at the end of their ropes being pushed further and further. The teachers are shot from behind, always, never turning around to face the class-room where the bullying is going on. The school is otherwise devoid of officials, who are only shadowy absentees as kids are kicked around. The home-lives are a mixture a silence, neglect, and violence. The first half-hour is a slow build-up to answer the question "Why?" It comes across as thick—too thick, even—but this is a movie and sometimes dials get set to eleven to make a point, and the point is made.
Then comes the payoff, and most of it goes down hill.
After the bad-kids get to the party, invited by someone they don't know and then ferried, by an old beat up truck to an unknown location, they are drugged. After having their car keys (for some reason) and cell-phones removed (hey, the bullied kids are THINKING!); they are chained up and left sprawled on the floor. Here, the movie comes to a potential fork in the road. On one path, the victims could have been released, possibly in waves, to weather traps and killers and meet dark, brutal ends in the woods. On the other one, the teens can stay chained up and then torture sequences could be played out one by one. I'll spoil it for you, they go with the latter. And, to make sure you understand why it is being done, presumably for those who missed the previous forty-minutes of the movie, every. single. scene. is. accompanied. by. minutes. worth. of. mostly. voice. modulated. lecture. about. the. effects. of. teen. bullying.
That's the last half of the movie, the last fifty-minutes or so: something like five or six victims (give or take a couple of passers-by who get caught in the trap), out of however many are actually chained up, about one per ten minutes, with lots of discussion about the real cost of bullies. That is what is going to divide the audience. I am not going to say that everybody who watches the film is going to understand how much it sucks to be pushed around every day when you get to school, and to not have a family who cares enough to do anything about it; but I will say that this movie is played out too slow and too deliberate for its own good. For every person who saw the first half, with one guy trying to help a friend and ending up with an expensive piece of equipment broken for the fun of it, and was still not convinced that something was rotten in the state of Denmark; the movie is going to drive away a dozen people who were on the side of the victims-turned-monsters, initially, but ended up finding them creepy and maybe even a little unbelievable as kids. It needs chaos and a lack of explanations.
It needs to either be a crime of passion or a crime of detachment, and by making it both we are forced to think that a seventeen year old can both be driven to torture her classmates but can sit back and do it without just flat out losing her shit in the midst of it. You try getting a little revenge on something, and see how often it blows out of control. Especially this level of revenge for that level of offense. It needs gray areas, not just morally questionable revenge tactics. It plays itself off as a horror retelling of Columbine, with what might be commentary on the Iraq war (a common theme is that if God had not wanted the bullies to suffer, there would have been a sign); and then falls back on all the bad tropes of bullies from 90s television. They are all wussies, really. They are terrified of someone standing up to them. They are all shallow and unloved. Their girlfriends are cheating sluts and they are cheating bastards. Et cetera.
And the continued lack of real tries to escape or over-power the kids doesn't bother you (this might have been a 9/11 reference, I feel), where apparently most of the kids sat there for hours without asking to use the bathroom or crying out; then maybe the horror-fandom will. Because, well, while some horror movies really are escapist fantasies for those who want to see the sexy pretties get killed, this movie seems to delight a little over-much in that. Rather than take a stand about the bullied kids obsession with horror flicks, it tries, again, to pass off both sides of the argument. Then it goes so far as to ape scenes from a few of them, which will either piss off horror fans or delight them. Your mileage may vary. For me, it ran out of gas about the time it stopped being a horror movie and started feeling more and more like a soft snuff film revenge fantasy made by the film's producers. As my wife, who watched it with me, said, they could have stopped the lecture where the bullies scream "Why us?!" and the leader of the bullied goes "Yes, why us?" The moral lesson was driven home and the rest could have been reflections on that theme instead of massive, cancerous expansions. It's bad when the near-the-end lecture of Can't Buy Me Love is more pithy and effective in discussing the idiocy of bullying than a horror movie dedicated to it.
As said before, this is goreless (and sexless) torture porn. I am not even sure why it is rated R, since every scene of torture tends to cut away before the blood shows up, much less anything else, and there are talks about liking sex by three overly shallow queen-bitches: but nothing so much like a single topless shot. Kid-on-kid violence is probably the answer, but if you cut out the beginning of this movie you might have a hard time realizing this was meant to be high-school teens since rarely do they act like them outside of actually going to high school.
Production values are high. Passion in the film making is high, probably too high. But without any real gore, any real id, and only a couple of standout scenes in the horror half—the later "finger cutting scene" is the emotional climax and one of the few scenes of horror that actually work without needing extra gore—I cannot recommend it too high. It becomes a study of an issue, rather than expression of it, and better have went down that road. I have a bad feeling that some actual horror and build-up scenes were cut to make room for more lectures. I appreciate two-thirds of this movie, and kind of a lot, but the remaining third is spread throughout, disrupting the whole thing for me. If you really hated bullies, and if you really think that teenage kids could both have the anger to carry this off and the detachment to stick with it for eight hours, and that is a cool thing, you will probably like it a whole lot more than I did. For me, though, it ended up being a weird mixed bag of horror tropes, Slaughter High (which at least brought a healthy dose of camp to it), and Elephant.
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