Monday, June 8, 2015

The unsatisfying Final Girl switcheroo

Oh Zombeavers.

You could have been the next Piranha. Instead, you were the next Piranha DD.

Just having bad animatronic zombie beavers isn't quite enough to make a bad movie transcendent. It also needs to be funny -- or, much funnier than this one was. Strangely, it is quite funny in its first 20 minutes before the titular creatures show up, but once they make their first appearance, the script loses all sense of how to plumb the natural ridiculousness from the situation. What could have been a cult movie ends up being just another movie that earns a low star rating, just another schlock horror that doesn't hit beyond its awesome title.

But I'm here today to talk about a different kind of disappointment to be derived from Zombeavers, one that has to do with its adherence, or lack thereof, to narrative conventions in general and genre conventions in particular.

Namely, the girls they cast were in all the wrong parts, and then, the wrong girls ended up dying in the wrong order.


You are surely familiar with the horror trope of The Final Girl, such an established trope that it can (and should) be capitalized. She is the one guaranteed survivor of some kind of alien, monster, undead creature or serial killer. It is perhaps the most reliable and consistently applied trope in all of horror.

Zombeavers has three candidates for the correct Final Girl, and the one it chooses is the worst of the three.

Let's take a look at this cast. I'll provide photos so you get a bit better sense of what I'm talking about.

First there's Rachel Melvin as Mary. She is the most obvious choice for The Final Girl, as she is the sweetest and probably the most established as an actress. She's the first listed in the cast, anyway, and she was in last year's Dumb and Dumber To, where she was very sweet. Mary is the one whose family owns the cabin where they are having a girls weekend. (It's only a girls weekend because one of the girls was cheated on by her boyfriend, but more on that in a minute.) Mary is also the most chaste (she won't take off her top to go swimming) and she's the one who establishes the rules of no texting and no talking about boys. Plus, she's got that cute little button nose.

Then there's Lexi Atkins as Jenn. Atkins is a comparative unknown -- although there's a hyperlink to her page in the wikipedia cast for this movie, she doesn't actually have a page yet. Jenn is the girl who was cheated on, who might also be a good candidate as The Final Girl because of her betrayal. Having a zombeaver kill her off would just be piling on her existing misery. Atkins is pretty sullen, which is understandable for a girl whose heart was just broken. But she doesn't exude any likability, which could just be her inexperience as an actor. Anyway, you have no desire whatsoever to root for her. Her blonde hair also usually labels her as someone unsavory, by traditional Hollywood metrics.

Finally we have Cortney Palm as Zoe. She also does not have a wikipedia page. She's the slut. We know this because she is the only one who does take her top off when they go swimming. She's constantly making rude jokes and generally being ribald. And when her boyfriend inevitably appears (after all, you need men to knock off with impunity in horror movies), they have the most carnivorous sex. The sexual carnivore is usually the first to go in a movie like Zombeavers, because horror tradition dictates that a woman must be punished for acting on her sexual desires.

So let's examine where things start to go wrong -- not with the beavers, but with the narrative.

The first sign of trouble is when it's revealed that Mary is the one who induced Jenn's boyfriend to cheat on her. Jenn doesn't know this, but the arrival of the three boyfriends -- including Jenn's ex, who is trying to make amends with her -- means that it's about to become public knowledge. What's weird about this is that Mary is incredibly sweet, by all outward appearances, and she has already shown her purity by not taking off her top and by banning the use of cell phones. Yet she's the one who stabbed her good friend in the back.

An easy way to fix this would just be to swap these two roles. Atkins profiles more as a cheater and Melvin profiles more as an innocent. Why not just reallocate the resources you have to get the actors in the right roles?

Even keeping in mind that Jenn is the one cheated on, though, we still have a problem because Jenn is actually the first eliminated from contention to be The Final Girl. She is bitten by an undead beaver (off screen, which is one of this film's many curious decisions) and is the first to try to chomp her friends and convert them. (When bitten by a zombeaver, humans sprout beaver teeth -- a funny idea with a not-all-that-funny execution.) So insult is added to injury, or injury to insult, when the poor betrayed girl (who is the wrong actress cast in the first place) is among the first victims.

The film makes a misstep, as I've already mentioned, by having Mary be the one who betrays her friend. Well, then it makes matters worse by interrupting the crisis with an impulsive episode of bathroom sex between Mary and the guy she cheated with. This scene is included primary so a zombeaverfied version of Jenn can come in and bite his dick off, which I get. But it makes Mary even more terrible, when she should be sweet, and also makes her just seem stupid, when she was previously the one who seemed to display the most intelligence. I mean, who pauses from an ongoing zombeaver crisis to have sex?

Mary is not killed in this scene. She and Zoe both escape as Jenn, the rest of their men, a pair of older neighbors, and a local hunter are all picked off by the beavers. We know of course that two girls cannot survive, so maybe the movie is finally trying to reestablish Mary as The Final Girl, even though she's not the pure character we once thought she was. But then Mary is the next one to sprout beaver teeth -- even though we didn't see her get bitten either.

So Zoe gets to be The Final Girl. The one who should have been killed first.

Of course, there actually isn't a Final Girl, because right before the credits roll, Zoe gets splattered by a truck whose driver is texting. (Every zombie movie, by tradition, needs to have some social commentary, so I suppose this qualifies as this movie's version of that.) This scene also ties back to a joke at the very beginning of the film.

So after you've written all this, Vance -- you still call me Vance in these hypothetical scenarios -- wasn't it kind of pointless? Mightn't they have actually saved the worst death for the worst character?

No, because even if you are going to kill The Final Girl in a Final Joke, she's still The Final Girl. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

You could argue that the filmmakers are consciously breaking the rules as a means of freshening things up or even as a means of surprising us. And there can certainly be good reasons to consciously break the rules. However, Zombeavers is the kind of movie that proves why the rules exist in the first place. The progression of character deaths is unsatisfying here, and that contributes to an unsatisfying entire final 45 minutes. That's breaking the rules for the wrong reasons, in my book.

Anyway, one area where I do agree with you: That was probably way too much to write about Zombeavers.

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