Superficially, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls looks like what would happen if Friday the 13th got the Wes Craven’s New Nightmare treatment: It’s a self-referential exploration of tropes (it takes its title from scholar Carol J. Clover’s brilliant analysis of horror cinema), a genre-excavation using a movie-within-a-movie conceit. (Note that the film-within-the-film is not Friday the 13th exactly, but the very similar fictional ‘80s horror hack-’em-up Camp Bloodbath). The action follows Max (Taissa Farmiga) and some of her friends, who get sucked into the slasher flick Max’s mom Amanda (played by Malin Åkerman) starred in during the ‘80s. When they figure out what’s going on, they realize they have to rely on their knowledge of the genre to find their way out.

But instead of turning out yet another trope-fest in a post-Scream world, Strauss-Schulson has more of a large-scale subversion in mind. The movie’s emotional core comes from the sideways reunion Max shares with Amanda, who was killed in a car accident.

“It’s a story about grief and the reverb of loss like that in the middle of a genre that does not take death seriously, where the higher the body count, the more fun the movie; the grosser the kills, the better the film,” he told me by phone a few weeks ago about his character meeting a Bizarro version of her mom. “I thought that kind of friction was a clever cinematic conceit.” It’s particularly meaningful to Strauss-Schulson because his father died a few years before he made The Final Girls. The director and I talked about death on screen, horror tropes, and catharsis. A condensed version of our chat, edited for length and clarity, appears below.

Gawker: It seems like self-reference is as much of a convention in horror as the conventions those meta-references tend to skewer. There’s running up stairs, there’s “I’ll be right back,” there’s making fun of horror movies within horror movies. Merely winking is not enough anymore. Was making a movie steeped in self-reference a challenge?

Todd Strauss-Schulson: Some people refer to the movie as a horror-comedy-spoof-parody. For us, when [M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller] wrote the script and I got involved and started working on it for three years with them, when I would meet actors, designing the movie, shooting the movie, it always always always was a personal story about loss. Josh and I both lost our dads fairly recently. I lost my father four weeks before I made my first movie [2011’s A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas], which was nuts. And then when I was editing that movie, I read Final Girls.

My experience of making that first movie was I was dreaming about my father all the time. It was wonderful that he was visiting me in my dreams. I was like, “Fuck, that’s what Final Girls is.” This is about a girl who gets a second chance to be with a dead loved one in almost a dream world, a surreal nightmare in a way. That was really the story. What I thought was so clever about the script was we were trying to do an emotionally expressive, almost Douglas Sirk melodrama, a “woman’s movie,” cloaked in a horror movie. It’s a story about grief and the reverb of loss like that in the middle of a genre that does not take death seriously, where the higher the body count, the more fun the movie; the grosser the kills, the better the film. I thought that kind of friction was a clever cinematic conceit.

The horror genre is a good place to see where we’re at as a culture. You can see a sex positive ‘70s, a more conservative ‘80s in some of the films. You can see the ‘90s, where things start to get meta, we start to get really savvy media-wise. You can see Cabin in the Woods, the early ‘10s, falls pretty heavily into geek fantasy. I think what Final Girls does, if you want to follow it in that sort of a narrative, even though I kind of think of it more like All that Jazz or Pleasantville, but in the context of horror, I think you can feel the culture softening a little bit in a way that’s really positive. You know, like Caitlyn Jenner, immediately we loved her. They’re teaching mindfulness meditation in the army. In high schools sexuality is more fluid. It’s just a slightly softer, kinder culture. The 2015 meta horror movie tilts heavily into its emotional core, where it’s not about the body count, it’s about the aftermath of the body count.

Yeah, the biggest wave in current horror is domesticity. There’s the haunted house stuff that has been run into the ground at this point, but there’s also a bunch of weird-kid stuff that explores child-parent relations like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy.

I think The Babadook is a good example of a movie that appears as and is sold as a horror movie, but is actually a psychodrama about the fears of motherhood. I love that movie. It’s so scary. The Final Girls is not really scary, it’s more funny. Also, I thought there was something super cinematic in an almost Gondry-y way about deconstructing a movie. It had some video game logic, being able to explore parts of the world you knew existed but never got to see, the credits and stuff, the flashbacks, the slow motion. I liked the visual playfulness of taking apart a film, and having the film almost be like an antagonist.

How much did you engage with Carol Clover’s writing to make this movie?

I read the book [Men, Women, and Chain Saws], but the deep well of knowledge goes to Mark and Josh. The tone was more me, but this great idea of telling a story about this grief in a horror movie and calling it a final girl, was really all of us together trying to make sure it felt modern. That was conscious. We’re taking these final girl ideas and these archetypes and then trying to make them three dimensional or at least trying to get under the hood. You have the mean girl, which is a character that comes up in these movies, and then halfway through our movie she says she’s sorry and explains why she’s mean. And the answer is because she’s jealous and hurt.

It also a movie about a bunch of women who like each other, are kicking ass side-by-side, and they’re not fighting over a guy. That felt progressive. Then also, the men in the movie are some of the most sensitive characters. Alexander Ludwig, who plays a viking on TV, is the only character who ever admits in the movie that he’s afraid. All of those little reversals were about taking some of the rules of modern movies and genre-filmmaking and just trying to flip them, just trying to reverse them and make them feel a little more modern. Just being disruptive as many times as we could.

You mentioned horror movies not taking death seriously. Do you think that’s a bad thing?

No, I think the what the horror genre exists to do is to have people face and deal with the idea that we’re all going to die, and to be able to play out some of those fantasies and walk out of there feeling fucking invincible. That’s kind of what’s happening there. It’s the same reason human beings have nightmares, so you can go through the high-stress events in your life without actually having to go through them and then you can come out and be more functional. That’s the deal with horror movies. We just didn’t want to do that.

I think it’s OK to talk about death as if it’s not the most depressing thing in the world. It’s not the most depressing thing. Sadness is not a bad thing. Sadness is letting go. Depression is holding on. Depression is a bad thing. Sadness is a cleansing. In my view, the sadness or the suffering is what connects all of us. It’s what makes us feel less alone.

I wanted to just tell a story that was sad but not depressing, that was melancholy but not super dark and dramatic. And that’s why the movie’s bright and beautiful and funny and fun and moves real fast but also happens to be about something tender and real. I think it’s really good that movies deal and grapple with death, it’s just sometimes funny how movies can twist an audience to be cheering for more murder. That is just anti-human to me. That’s too much. Hostel, Saw. That’s too much. I just have a tender heart. That’s why I was able to get into Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles. There’s a playful quality to those films. It’s more of a work of imagination.

Was playing with death in this way cathartic for you?

Yes, absolutely. It was really real for me, and when I would watch it in the beginning, I could really feel it tremendously. I think that’s a good thing for people. I like that they go into the movie like, “It’s going to be hilarious!” But for me, I think we got to the movies looking for a human experience. I think you want to laugh and cry but in some kind of subconscious way, I think you want to touch some sort of tender part in yourself that gets cemented up with irony and anxiety and sarcasm and fear and all this endless thinking we do. I think there’s almost nothing better than a movie to drop you into that part of yourself. It’s almost like an antidote.

I can only speak from my own experience. If my sibling was tortured, maimed, and murdered in some horrible, violent way, I’d probably be more keyed into the savagery of how we can be to each other. But my dad was just sick. And he was in a hospital full of people that were so wonderful and hilarious. There was something that was solemn about it, but also something weirdly noble and cleansing, some beautiful experience. It’s just so real to sit next to someone who is sick and dying. Some people are like, “Gross, gross, gross, get me out of here, I can’t deal with it,” but if you can sit there with it and hold it, there’s something really significant and kind of beautiful. It’s certainly tender. It really makes you feel like you’re living life and you’re really there when you’re looking at that sadness and feeling it. It’s like the opposite of being in a mall where it’s like, “Buy stuff, shopping, craving, craving, moving around.” You have to sit there and recognize it’s going to happen to you. It’s OK. It’s not the biggest deal. You don’t have to cling onto all of it.

The Final Girls is in theaters now.