Last Girl Standing is the kind of Indy horror debut that will put director Benjamin R. Moody on the map, evidently, since it was picked up for distribution by the Frightfest Presents label. Frightfest has a long and admirable history of championing low-budget underdog genre films, giving filmmakers the opportunity to reach a wider audience if they show potential. The recent batch of Frightfest releases shows the charm, scares, and self-awareness we’ve come to expect, but Last Girl Standing feels like a potential cult classic and marks Moody as a talent to watch for.
The slasher genre is swamped, so it’s a tricky place to make your voice heard. Too often a slasher film feels like paint-by-numbers horror. Moody takes his story in a whole different direction though, focusing on the post-massacre psychological impact on the iconic final girl. Starting with the final five minutes of a Halloween/Friday the 13th inspired story, our bedraggled heroine finds her butchered friends and survives a final horrific attack by the skin of her teeth. It’s a smart way to go, because we’ve all seen this a hundred times. We’ve all seen the heroine navigate her own stumble-prone legs, seen a hundred “virginal” scream queens break down at the sight of her friends’ mangled corpses, but making this the pre-credit sequence makes Last Girl Standing feel fresh and savvy. After that, the film zips forward 5 years (after a great credit sequence) to find Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) working at a dry cleaners, dealing with intense bouts of anxiety and depression, not to mention the potential return of her attacker.
The aim here is not to enjoy a kill-crazy blood-fest, but to settle into a decent story and explore some ideas that the bulk of horror films often skim past. In the end, that’s a more applaudable gamble. It’s easy enough for the audience to walk away after the credits roll, but what about the survivors? The PTSD route is almost a more honest way to approach a story like this and seems to be catching on; it worked for Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2 and was one of the more interesting parts of Maggie. Moody has arranged his film as a deeply affecting horror drama, but people looking for deep-seated scares might be disappointed.
There’s plenty of tension here, and it’s a very intriguing film because it throws so much doubt around, but Moody seems primarily concerned with setting up his final set-piece punch-line. Credit where credits due; the finale actually elicits more of a crushing melancholy than it does shock and terror, and that’s a weirdly untapped final note for slashers. Story aside, this is a well-executed venture with an atmospheric use of folk horror imagery and stark colour, particularly in the night-time sequences. The editing is pitch-perfect too, keeping any action sequences sharp and punchy whislt the gore is visceral and used at just the right moments. The overall effect is that Last Girl Standing feels way more sleek and professional than it could have in careless hands.
Moody hasn’t quite crafted a post-modern masterpiece, but he has put a unique, well-shot spin on a tired sub-genre. Modern horror is going to increasingly experimental, nostalgic, and self-reflective lengths to provide new terrifying experiences and, though Moody’s film is no genre-buster, it is a sharp and unsettling little debut which manages to sit in the pit of your stomach right up to its final heart-breaking moments.
Dir. Benjamin R. Moody
Stars: Akasha Villalobos, Danielle Evon Ploeger, Brian Villalobos, Chad Warren