With any luck (and according to recent news), this will be the final summer of a long drought without a new Friday the 13th film…
…In the meantime, we have writer/director John Isberg’s Final Summer, which just premiered at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and aims to pay homage to everyone’s favorite summer camp slasher. Unfortunately, Jason’s shoes are a little too big for Isberg’s film to manage.
Opening on Camp Silverlake in 1986, we meet a group of campers who discuss the legend of Warren Copper, a supposed killer who now works as the camp’s groundskeeper (rule of thumb in camp slashers: Never trust the groundskeeper). After one of the kids is killed by a skull-masked maniac, we flash-forward to 1991, where one of the campers has died under the watch of distraught Lexi (Jenna Kohn). That night, Lexi and the rest of the counselors are tasked with closing down the camp, unprepared for the killer which has returned to Camp Silverlake.
Look, I don’t like to weigh films against one another in a review unless they’re part of the same franchise, but Final Summer brings the comparison to Friday the 13th on itself through reference after reference that makes you wonder if this was once a fan script, with only the names changed. The Friday the 13th Part 2 style cold-open with a legend about a camp killer. The running kill shot, an exact replication of the one from the Friday the 13th remake that closes the first act. One character mimicking Jason’s classic “ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma”. Hell, even a hockey mask shows up at one point. There’s so much Friday the 13th in Final Summer, that it’s easy to assume Isberg misses Jason just as much as the rest of us. Maybe more so.
There’s nothing wrong with homaging or even straight up copying a beloved genre classic. Everyone does it, and this wouldn’t be the first time Friday the 13th had its skin torn off and worn by another (itself somewhat of a rip on Halloween). Not even close. Madman. The Burning. Sleepaway Camp. Plenty of great summer camp slashers have risen from the ashes with DNA inspired by the Voorhees family. A lack of originality isn’t where Isberg’s film goes wrong. Where Final Summer falls on its own machete (or ax, in this killer’s case) is in the way it commits multiple slasher sins.
By introducing the cast of characters with a fresh death hanging over their heads, Final Summer immediately bursts into melodramatic territory without first letting us get to know these people. Our main protagonist, Lexi, is essentially traumatized, taking all of the usual fun out of something like crushing on her Peter (Wyatt Taber) as he hits on her, which instead comes off as creepy because she just witnessed someone die, Peter! We also meet Betsy Palmer lookalike Linnea Krug (Joi Hoffsommer), informing the counselors that the camp will be sold after the weekend while mentioning years worth of murders by a killer who was never caught, begging the question, how is this camp still open!? Through it all we’re introduced to sad, tired, utterly lifeless characters with actors doing their best to stand out, but given much too little to work with. The stiff dialogue doesn’t help.
Final Summer also makes the mistake of delivering virtually zero stalking and slashing. You’d need a lot more than a flashlight to find the suspense in this dark slasher. Most films in the genre keep their killer hidden from the cast until the last possible moment, upping the element of surprise. Isberg, however, greets his characters with the masked killer roughly thirty minutes in, turning this into a repetitive back and forth in which they run from cabin to cabin, find mind-numbing reasons to split up (that old trope), and get killed. Rinse and repeat. Choppy editing and bland cinematography does little to enhance the scares in the meantime, often having the killer enter the scene without any buildup.
Worst of all though is that, for a film which is clearly paying tribute to one of the greatest slashers of them all, Final Summer is a bloodless affair. Deaths happen off-screen. Poor choreography clearly displays actors are pulling their punches. And there’s not a drop of blood to be spilt. When it comes to slashers, flaws can be forgiven with a substitute of memorable gore, but Final Summer robs audiences of what draws so many of us to this particular sub-genre. I’m just a fan, standing here in front of Final Summer and begging for even an ounce of bloodshed.
Of course it’s not all bad. Despite everything Final Summer doesn’t deliver on, it does at least give off a bit of that classic vibe with foggy atmospherics and a retro score from Jeff Schroeder. Whatever cuts this film deserves, it can’t be ignored that Isberg clearly has a passion for these types of slashers and is having fun here. You bet I laughed at one scene involving a pool noodle to the face, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t a portrait in Krug’s office that’s supposed to be the mustache god, Tom Atkins. Friday the 13th part VI legend, Thom Mathews, also makes a fun cameo, even if he is a bit underused. The execution leaves a lot to be desired, but Isberg’s love of slashers screams through Final Summer nonetheless.
That being said, this is one campfire story better suited for putting the kids to bed than scaring them out of their minds.
By Matt Konopka