The first few minutes of The Finale will be familiar to Dallas theatergoers. The camera lurks into the lobby of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater in Turtle Creek. But this is not a crowded opening night for an Uptown Players musical; it’s the opening scene to a low-budget, but impressively scary horror flick packed with local talent. And it’s now available on most major streaming platforms.
The film, which chronicles a series of murders at a high school theater camp, was the brainchild of writer Michael Federico and director Christie Vela. The pair have worked together and been friends for decades, and started exploring their love for horror movies (and tacos!) in 2018 with a podcast, “Terror and Tacos.” But the germ of the idea for this film, in which the duo play a pair of detectives, came during a promo shoot for “Romeo and Juliet” at Dallas Theater Center in 2016. In it, Vela and Federico are called to the scene of a crime to solve what appears to be a murder/suicide.
Later that summer while they were escaping the Texas heat in a pool, Vela floated the idea to Federico that maybe they should make a movie. Perhaps a slasher story—they both love the original Scream—that would take place somewhere they know well, like, say, a theater camp. By that fall, Federico had a first draft of a script.
They assembled an impressive cast of Dallas actors, all of whom have been in many stage productions throughout the region. Charles Brandon Potter, who plays the acting teacher at the camp, might be most recognizable from his time as President Lyndon B. Johnson in DTC’s All the Way.
Jeffrey Schmidt, artistic director of Theatre Three, plays the absent camp director; Liza Marie Gonzalez, a longtime Kitchen Dog Theater company member, plays the overworked, burnt out assistant camp director; Joel Ferrell, the prolific director and choreographer, plays the dance instructor. And the camp students include Parker Gray, Katy Tye, and Tex Patrello.
During the planning stages, they brought on the actor Max Hartman—who also happens to be the longtime voice of Domino’s Pizza—as an executive producer and composer. He plays Captain Tommy Saxton, boss to detectives Rizzo (Federico) and Reyes (Vela). He helped them identify a production company and learn the filmmaking process. And it all happened in the nick of time. They wrapped filming in March 2020, one week before the pandemic shut down film sets across the world.
While the filming seems to take place primarily at the Kalita Humphreys (which has long been rumored to be haunted), an eagle-eyed Dallasite will recognize the stages and offices of Theatre Three, the rarely-used upstairs space in the Kalita known as Frank’s Place, and East Dallas eatery Garden Cafe, which stands in for the Twin Peaks-ish diner. (Local roaster, Tweed, even makes a cameo as the “damn fine” cup of coffee.)
While the detectives might steal the show, the main plot centers on Sagan (a dazzling Gabrielle Reyes) who is being pushed by her mother (Sally Nystuen Vahle) to follow in the footsteps of her sister and attend a prestigious theater clinic. There, while rehearsing the musical What Mary Saw, she is quickly identified as a triple threat by the instructors. One instructor even offers to tutor her after hours and, as the days go by, she finds herself increasingly uncomfortable with what is unfolding at the camp. As rehearsals continue, the teachers and the students begin to disappear one by one.
The movie takes some wild twists and turns and, without giving anything away, pays homage to specific scenes and characters. In a recent episode of their podcast, Federico and Vela detail each film they drew inspiration from, which include Mulholland Drive, Suspiria, and Curtains. But The Finale doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s a campy romp through a murder mystery with some true jump scares and wickedly funny moments, all with Dallas as its backdrop.