Directed by Benjamin Moody
Every year at Texas Frightmare Weekend there’s one movie that screens that stands above the others. One film, frequently a premiere, that’s just better than the rest. In 2016 that movie is Last Girl Standing.
It’s a difficult film to describe. The setup is simple enough: After a traditional slasher film, what happens to the “final girl?” We’ve seen that answer in sequels; she usually winds up dead. What would happen, though, if she exited the world of the standard 80’s-style slasher and went into the real world, where PTSD and survivor trauma were real?
That’s what first-time (?!?) writer/director Ben Moody brings us with Last Girl Standing. I’d say it mostly registers as a thriller, but it’s also very much a character drama. It’s a very bold step, especially when making what is definitely a horror film, but Moody nails the goal precisely. Camryn (Villalobos) survives The Hunter, who murdered all of her friends in the woods as part of a failed ritual. Five years later, though, she’s barely surviving. You can’t call it living. She works a menial job, avoids contact as much as possible, and is plagued by never-ending nightmares and flashbacks.
A new employee at her job causes her to reach out to another human as the five-year anniversary of the killings hits and she starts experiencing mysterious attacks that suggest the killer may not be dead.
That explains the “thriller” side of the film, and had Moody relied on that plot alone, he’d still have a good film. What makes this a brilliant film, though, is that he doesn’t. We’re taken inside Camryn’s world as she starts to come out of hiding and lets other people in. She meets a kindred soul in Danielle, one of a group of friends she becomes a part of, and this leads her to confront her fears. She survived The Hunter; can she survive herself?
What follows is nothing short of genius which hearkens back to Ripley in Alien and even Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Whose story is this? What are we really watching?
The heart of this movie is in how it treats and displays survivors of trauma. Unfortunately, I am married to a survivor of trauma and know many others, and in Camryn and Danielle, the reality is portrayed perfectly. The constant struggle, the effort required to just get on with things… it’s all there. I have to call out the performance of San Antonio’s own Danielle Evon Ploeger as Danielle, specifically. Camryn is the lead and has all the fireworks, but Danielle’s story, though quieter, catches the viewer by surprise and just guts you with empathy. We know what Camryn went though… we see it. All we see of Danielle’s suffering is what she shares with Camryn in a moment of quiet conversation. It leaves you heartbroken, as Danielle seems to have it all together and is doing well. It’s extremely powerful stuff by writer/director and actress, and I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.
A story I have to share about the screening: Right before the third act there was a problem with the disc, and the movie froze. I’ve only seen a crowd close to a riot bigger than this once or twice. People were engaged and openly upset that they may not be able to see the end of the film. When they got the problem fixed, there was a cheer worthy of an NFL title game. This is a jaded, hardcore horror crowd, mind you. The film is just that strong.
While it seems this one was made for $5 and the goodwill of friends, it absolutely doesn’t look it. I had no idea it was a micro-budget movie until after the screening, and I was shocked. This is a solid, professionally made film. Outside of the standout leads, a couple of the background characters have uneven performances, but it’s nothing that throws you out of the film. Even the gore effects are solid. My only real complaint is minor: The Hunter design is a little goofy. I get what they were trying to do – make the slasher part of the story as traditional and silly as always and then throw you into reality for maximum shock, but the jackalope mask is a bit much. He’s a menacing slasher and effective for what he needs to do, but damn… those antlers. Just sayin’.
Last Girl Standing is an incredible debut from Moody. He’s given us a touching character study that manages to satisfy fans of drama. When things go bad, and they do go bad, he satisfies horror fans just as much. It’s a tight, touching, intense thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
One last tip: Do NOT Google this movie. There are some big spoilers sitting out there in text and images. This is definitely one of those films that’s best experienced cold, like I did.