There's a bizarre allegorical mirror at the heart of The Final, Joey Stewart's 2010 torture porn-lite teensploiter. In the film, a group of clever young people steeped in horror flick conventions and lore band together to create an allegorical atrocity for mass consumption. Which, in broad terms, is what the Stewart and his crew are doing as well. Neither atrocity comes off as planned. A Saw for the post-Columbine teen set, The Final is a plodding combination of promising ideas and poor execution. The result is a film that has plenty to talk about, but is stammering and tongue-tied. It's exemplary of a sadly too common failure in horror: a film that is "about something," but simply isn't very good. Such film suffer from Romeroism.
Stewart starts off strong enough. Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Final is that it seems to spring up directly from the headspace of its main characters. Like the children combatants of the superior Battle Royale, the teens in this film find themselves thrust into a situation that taxes the limitations of the cognitive tools they have to make sense of the world. The result is they must rely on the rough and naked products of their own imaginations, such as the painfully earnest goth girl diary entries we hear in voiceover, or the ready-built tools of the media sphere around them, as when the aforementioned diarist adopts the look and mannerism of Asami from Miike's revenge-horror Audition to carry out her own revenge plot. The most emotionally real characters in The Final fluctuate between these extremes of helpless vulnerability and a detached, learned cruelty that's the only enduring thing the adult world bequeathed them.
In contrast to Battle Royale, the world of The Final seems like a projection of this mindscape. BR focused on the collision of youth and adulthood; The Final starts by removing adults almost entirely from the picture. This absence is communicated in the film's first act by making sure the faces of the adults in the film are always obscured. (Think of the Austin Power's bit where the characters' naughty bits are always conveniently covered – it works like that.) Without the stifling effect of adult authority, the characters live in a world made up of operatic emotions and vapid received stereotypes. Every bully is not just a jerk, but the biggest a-hole you can imagine. The school's mean-girls aren't just self-absorbed drama queens, they're sadist driven to seek out a constant stream of fresh hells to inflict on others. Consequently, there's a dramatic logic to absurdly extreme revenge plot the underdogs – a costume party that turns into a subCaptivity-grade torture-fest – cook up. In a world where everybody relentless follows trajectory of escalation based in simplistic logic of their characterization, then any revenge plan must skew towards the most horrific and definitive result. This relentless logic of character feels appropriate because the filmmaker initially handles it with ironic detachment. Unfortunately, that doesn't last.
By the end of the flick, Stewart trades in his winningly ironic and satiric tone for the less attractive tone of a hectoring afterschool special. I can see why Stewart might have felt the need to throttle back. When the world seems to reflect the tumult inside out victims-turned-torturers, the films builds quite a bit of sympathy with them and comes dangerously close to working as a sort of apologia for school shootings. As a remedy, Stewart slips in a character that acts as our moral touchstone: a generic "nice guy" who, despite the easy charisma of actor Jascha Washington, is intrusively out of place. Furthermore, the return of adult figures to the plot, complete with lessons about bravery and honor, feels like a total loss of nerve. This feeling is compounded by the bloodless torture-scenes that follow. When it is time to unleash hell on his characters, Stewart's resolve fails him.
Perhaps this could all be forgiven, but an unevenly paced script and lackluster visuals give you ample time to ponder why The Final isn't coming together. The result: a D, at best.