First published by TheHorrorShow
With an opening sequence in which Camryn (Akasha Villalobos) turns the tables on deer-masked ritual killer ‘the Hunter’ and survives a woodlands killing spree that has left all her friends dead, Last Girl Standing begins where most slashers end. For Benjamin R. Moody’s feature debut is less interested in the emergence of a ‘final girl’ than with the scars, physical and mental, that remain after enduring such an ordeal.
Five years later, Camryn has barely moved on. Living alone in a near empty flat and rarely exchanging more than a word with anyone, Camryn keeps a low profile and remains in a constant state of guilt and fear. The same day that friendly, forward Nick (played by Villalobos’ husband Brian) joins the staff of the dry cleaners where Camryn works, the masked Hunter also resurfaces, and Camryn becomes convinced that her new acquaintances – not just Nick but his housemates the student Danielle (Danielle Evon Ploeger) and the artist Tyler (JD Carrera), and their close-knit coterie of friends – are being set up as the returned killer’s next victims.
Yet much as a newspaper clipping seen in the film declares the opening ‘campsite massacre’ to be “like a horror movie come to life”, Camryn’s terrified experiences are full of cinematic allusions that point in rather different, more psychological directions. Having narrowly escaped the Hunter’s clutches in the opening scenes, Camryn may be rescued by a passing pickup driver like the one at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but just before that she is shown running, bloody and traumatised, with framing that recalls the deeply damaged girl seen running at the beginning of Martyrs (2008). That girl, lest we forget, ends up some years later convinced that she is being pursued by a murderous phantom, and slaughters an entire family.
Later the distinctive screeching sound made by Camryn’s shower as it is turned on references Bernard Herrmann’s famous string stabs from Psycho (1960) – and Hitchcock’s myth of murder and madness is also recalled by Camryn’s heightened, hallucinatory anxiety around the shower (where she keeps hearing heavy male breathing and muttering). Like Repulsion (1965), Last Girl Standing also features a skinned rabbit, in a dynamic allusion to Polanski’s film that modulates our uncertainty of whether we are witnessing real male assaults on our angst-ridden heroine, or a subjectivised study of her mental breakdown. “Actually I was attacked yesterday,” Camryn confides in Danielle, before adding, “At least I think I was“ – and that last qualification openly acknowledges a doubt that many viewers will share, as they try to sort the film’s events from Camryn’s paranoid perception of them.
By the time Camryn is proferring Danielle a shovel at the Hunter’s secluded graveside with the words, “He is out there alright – you don’t believe me, show me his body, prove that I’m fucking crazy!”, little doubt remains about the fragile state of Camryn’s sanity – but Danielle, herself scarred by past trauma, is willing to go the extra mile if it will help her troubled new friend to the closure she needs, and bring things full circle .
“Does it have to do with the tree rings, and how repetitive life is?” asks Hannah (Laura Ray) about Tyler’s choice of wood as the medium for his sculptures. “No two rings are the same,” replies Tyler, “Each ring tells a different story.” If by this stage the viewer is thinking of the famous tree rings in Vertigo (1958), Last Girl Standing certainly induces its own vertiginous state, as the neurotic projections of Hitchcock’s film mix headily with a metacinematic take on well-worn horror routines. For this is also a tale of cycles, repetitions and deviations, of warps left in the fleshy wood as markers of experience and affliction, of the repressed returning to haunt (and hunt). Moody’s film has all the thrills and beats of a regular slasher, but also far greater depth to its characters – and an ending that transforms and elevates the typical tropes of this subgenre into ritualised tragedy. If the last girl standing both fears and desires the return of her antagonist, viewers too can only hope that this promising filmmaker will be back soon to carve up horror once again into unusual works of art.
© Anton Bitel