There will be mild spoilers below for assorted horror movies of the last 40 or so years—namely, revealing the names of the “final girls” of said movies. Read on at your own risk.
Until I was 13 or 14 years old, I hated horror movies. I had always hated Halloween because there were nothing but men in scary masks hacking up teenagers on TV (and because I hated seeing teenagers in those same masks running around the neighborhood) and I didn’t like being scared. Life can be awful enough; why subject yourself to extra torture?
But it was the middle of a weekend day, probably on AMC’s Halloween marathon, when my mom (who also largely disliked scary movies) and I ended up engrossed in 1998’s teen slasher, Urban Legend. That moment will live in infamy in my life, as that was the movie that spawned my concurrent love affairs with late 90s teen slasher flicks, Joshua Jackson, and final girls.
In the movies, as Riley Sager’s novel Final Girls informs us, the “final girl” is the last girl left alive in a horror movie. All her friends may have been butchered by a masked psychopath, but she somehow made it through the night. For me, “final girl” summons up the likes of Laurie Strode, Natalie Simon, and my all-time favorite, Sidney “not in my movie” Prescott.
Final Girls focuses on three “final girls” who could have starred in their own 70s/80s/90s teen slasher flicks, but who lived through the events in real life: Lisa, whose sorority sisters were massacred by an unhinged college dropout; Sam, whose shift at a shady motel turned bloody thanks to a man now known as the Sack Man; and Quincy, sole survivor of the Pine Cottage Murders, where five of her friends were attacked by an escaped mental patient whom Quincy now only refers to as Him.
Following their attacks, Lisa became a child psychologist and perennial nurser of down-on-their-luck young women, Sam vanished into the ether, and Quincy supposedly picked up her “normal” life. She recovered, graduated college, and, with money from assorted lawsuits filed by her family and the families of her murdered friends, purchased a beautiful Upper West Side apartment. In the present day, ten years after what happened at Pine Cottage, Quincy lives in this two-bed with her boyfriend, Jeff, and runs a fairly popular baking blog. But her perfectly ordered life is disrupted when she receives word that Lisa has been found dead and, a day later, Sam appears on her doorstep, out of hiding and looking for answers.
I was on board with this premise from the moment I read about it and I was so incredibly lucky to win a giveaway through Shelf Awareness (thanks to Shelf and publisher Dutton!). And I was all-in . . . for the first half of the book.
Sager’s love of slasher flicks, true crime, and those incredible final girls is evident on every page, and she makes fantastic use of many of the tropes made classic in such films: the faceless killer; the pretty survivor; the good cop trying to do right by his final girl (Deputy Dewey, anyone?); the ridiculous motives.
She also cleverly and realistically answers those “but what happens now?” questions that often pop up when the credits roll at the end of a horror movie. There are six Halloween movies, four Screams, three Urban Legends, and two I Know What You Did Last Summers, not to mention the numerous Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels, spin-offs, and reboots that liter movie marathons around October 31st, but you never really get to see what those final girls get up to. Even someone as badass as Sid Prescott doesn’t simply traipse into her next blockbuster without facing some major psychological—is not also physical—damage. No one wants to pay $15 to watch a movie about a young woman going to physical therapy and talking to a psychiatrist to work through her pain and grief, but that would certainly be the more realistic outcome.
In Final Girls, it was interesting to see Quincy struggle with that guilt, largely through a reliance on Xanax and wine, as she tried time and again to convince herself that she was fine, for the sake of her mother, her boyfriend, and all of America. She did her time in the hospital and seems to think she’s been miraculously healed, though its clear that both the physical and mental scars are still there.
Still, I felt that the plot began to lag some in the middle portion of the book, and though I didn’t catch all the twists that were thrown at me in the denouement, I still guessed a number of them fairly early on. Quincy became a fairly unlikable character for a good two-hundred pages and I didn’t enjoy following her meandering story—in which she and Sam become kind-of vigilantes in Central Park. In a way, my shift from liking Quincy to not liking her very much made me guiltily aware of her shift from playing normal to embracing her demons—I liked her when she was baking and getting on with her life, and found her a bit grating when she allowed herself to get drunk (and angry). Perhaps this was a brilliant manipulation on the author’s part; if so, I applaud her!
Still, at times, Final Girls felt like a lackluster sequel to Quincy’s Pine Cottage movie, the Scream 3 to Scream, if you will.* I wanted more of the great slasher nods and final girl homages, and not so much of the fairly pedestrian motives revealed in the last 25 pages. Readers don’t really get to know Lisa at all and Sam’s history is spotty, at best, and I really would have liked to know all three women far more before being thrown into the main plot.
At first, Final Girls felt like the what-if slasher fanfic I’d always wanted to write, like someone had murdered Laurie Strode and then a grungy Sidney Prescott showed up at Julie James’s apartment to talk to her about it. By the last page, I’d lost some of that initial excitement, and I wasn’t entirely pleased with the ending. But still, this was a fairly strong thriller that’s sure to please fans of the genre, as well as anyone who ever wondered what the “final girl” in their favorite movie did next.
*Scream 2 is one of the few horror sequels to really stand up to the original. I will fight you on this point.