Final Exam (1981)

Author: Wes R.
Submitted by: Wes R.   Date : 2008-10-01 09:23

Written and Directed by: Jimmy Huston
Starring: Cecile Bagdadi, Timothy Raynor, Joel Rice, Ralph Brown, and Sherry Willis-Burch

Reviewed by: Wes R.

In this day and age, there are very few fan and cult favorites that have yet to make it to the digital home video format, but for various reasons, a few have eluded the awaiting grasp of eager fans. It's hard to fathom that only until a year or so ago, a highly-requested fan-favorite like The Burning had yet to make its official debut on DVD. Now, after years of rumors about rights issues, possible legal trouble, and even mob involvement (!) the much unfairly berated Final Exam is available for its fans to enjoy in the comfort of their own home…or dorm. I've always taken up for this film when so many seem to want to put it down for not being particularly eventful, bloody, or titillating. Would it hold up on the DVD format or would it remain one of those films that can only be seen and appreciated on a well-worn VHS tape? Let's take a look.

Lanier College is getting ready to conclude its current semester. Fraternity pranks are at a fever pitch and everyone across campus is studying hard for their final exams. Everything seems pretty normal, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. A mysterious stranger driving an ominous van has entered the idyllic grounds of Lanier. Someone with a much larger chip on his shoulder than wondering if he will pass his Chem final or not. This individual has murder in mind, born of an agenda all his own. Will the hunky jocks, brainy nerds, and buxom bimbos of Lanier make it out alive, or will they all fail the ultimate test of human survival that only a killer this deranged could create?

I really like this movie. I always have. The thing is, I can see exactly why most horror fans can’t get into it. It is slow. It does take about an hour to get to the kills. It lacks in blood and only has a brief shot of nudity. So, why should any horror fan like this movie? I'll tell you why. Few college slasher movies have captured the truly creepy vibe that a desolate campus at night features. Ever had to walk across campus in the middle of the night to get something you left behind in another person’s dorm room or a classroom? It's a place where so many people inhabit during the daytime, but strangely at night, no one seems to be around. If you know what I'm talking about then you’ve probably felt that uncomfortable feeling of paranoia that someone could reach out and attack you at any moment. This film captures that feeling perfectly. I think more people would appreciate the film if they looked at it as two movies in one...similar to what Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did with From Dusk Till Dawn, only here, the first half is more of a campus hijinx movie, and the last half is definitely a slasher movie.

The cast is fun, if a little green. You can tell it’s the first real acting roles for many of them, but there really aren’t any bad performances. If anything, the visible inexperience adds authenticity to their roles. Radish, played by Joel Rice, is easily an early precursor to the role of the horror movie crazed Randy character in the Scream movies. Their names are even quite similar. If you'll remember, Final Exam's title was even mentioned by Randy early in Scream 2. Radish makes for one of the most unique and memorable characters to come out of an early 80s slasher movie, and it's easy to see why Kevin Williamson would've wanted to emulate the character in his own slasher franchise. The character of Wildman, portrayed by Ralph Brown, is also memorably crass. He's the ultimate goofball party-boy whose truly amazing mane of early 80s hair adds to his crass, animal-like nature. The killer, played by Timothy Raynor is low key, but effective. Some 26 years later, actor Javier Bardem would make the nearly the same haircut world famous in his Oscar-winning performance in the Coen Brothers' film No Country For Old Men. Director Jimmy Huston did little before making Final Exam and has done little since. His only other noteworthy credit to horror fans is the late 80s horror comedy My Best Friend is a Vampire. To his credit, however, the strength of Final Exam rests mostly on him. Huston does get some great help in the way of a terrific musical score by Gary S. Scott. Utilizing the ever-popular early 80s slasher standby, the synth keyboard, as well as haunting piano melodies, Scott's score stands high above those of some of the better-known slashers of the time period. It provides a desolate and eerie resonance to the creepy campus setting without ever being gimmicky or cheesy. Definitely influenced by John Carpenter's score for Halloween, but hey, if you're going to mimic a horror movie score, that's certainly the one to try and mimic.

For a film from the banner slasher boom year of 1981, it is severely lacking in the blood and gore department. Though, for once, the film’s tame nature isn’t due to MPAA interference. According to those in the audio commentary, none of the death scenes had anything cut from them. Director Jimmy Huston seemed to be aiming more for story-driven suspense than gut-wrenching shocks. A rarity for slasher movies, the film is chock full of character development. You get to know most everybody who ends up dying later in the film. Even the prank-playing jerk, Wildman, has enough likable moments that we genuinely feel bad for him when he meets up with the killer. Many slashers offer the formula “introduce character, then kill character” without us ever knowing a single thing about them or caring at all if they live or die. In most of these films, we end up rooting for the killer because we spend more time with him as he's doing these awful things than we do with those we're supposed to feel sympathy for. This is not the case in Final Exam. Here we root for the characters because we've spent time with them and have gotten to know and like them. When they are dispatched of during the frenzied, well-paced final half hour, we mourn each loss. Yeah, it takes a little time getting to the horror “good stuff” but once it arrives, the pace is so swift that Huston barely gives the audience time to catch their breath before the next victim meets his or her demise.

Usually, part of the slasher movie formula is to have some sort of event transpire that drives someone insane or causes them to seek revenge for something. Generally, it’s some type of humiliation or wrongdoing of some sort on the part of a particular person or group on the arrival of a particular holiday, anniversary, or other special event. There is a rare breed of slashers, however, that attempt to keep their killer’s backstory ambiguous. In Bob Clark’s original classic, Black Christmas, Clark delivers plenty enough information to the audience via “Billy’s” personality, speech, and mannerisms that you can form your own theories about who he is and what his motivations might be. Final Exam doesn’t give its audience that luxury, because frankly, there are very few clues. The killer has so little actual screentime, except for the killings and none his scenes feature any sort of dialogue or body language. The few clues to the killer’s identity and motivations are…he drives a van and he wears a green army jacket. That's it. Was he a former military man? Who knows. Why has he chosen the college as the target of his rage? Was he a former student? Why does he use a butcher's knife? Nothing is ever known about him. The film simply ends with nothing resolved except that he can no longer harm anyone (or can he?) Though, a killer this ambiguous would normally frustrate the average horror fan, I found it refreshing. Whereas so many slashers spend a great deal of time setting up an elaborate and sometimes ridiculous backstory for the killer, Final Exam seems uninterested in the killer as a living human being and instead uses him as a tragic, mysterious force that moves into the lives of those at Lanier College and changes them forever. He's a perfect storm whose only motivation is carnage and the kind of random maniac that is all too prevalent in real life. The killer actually manages to generate a few decent scares, thanks in part to Huston’s clever direction and Raynor's minimalistic, yet menacing performance.

Finally available in Region 1, Final Exam has been given a pretty decent DVD treatment. The anamorphic widescreen video transfer is generally good, with only a few lackluster shots here and there. It’s far from the worst transfer I’ve ever seen, but it’s not quite as good as those for April Fool's Day or Happy Birthday to Me. The audio is good but nothing spectacular. No popping, hissing, or other distractions were noticed. Even if the quality of video and audio were lesser, fans are truly lucky enough to have the film released at all. For the longest time, it was rumored that somehow the mob was involved in the film's production and that it was a major stumbling block in its release. I'm not quite sure if this was actually the case, but one thing is for certain, it took a long time for this film to make it to DVD. Deimos has gotten Code Red to produce a few very cool special features. The audio commentary with stars Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch is nice, with most remembering or vaguely remembering stories from the set. The three stars seem to really get along and genuinely give off the impression that they not only had fun during filming, but also during the recording of the audio commentary. I'd really liked to have had an audio commentary with director Jimmy Huston and perhaps one of the producers. I'm fascinated by the early 80s slasher boom and love hearing stories about how films that were part of it came about. My all-time favorite audio commentary is on Anchor Bay's disc for Madman, as it gives a complete rundown of what it was like to shoot a low budget slasher film during this period. The moderator of the Final Exam commentary has a theory that the killer is a pair of identical twins, but I’m not so sure I buy into it. With no real clues to disprove it, I suppose it is possible. The disc also contains interviews with each of the stars from the commentary. While, they pretty much just go over the same information they give out in the audio commentary, it was neat getting to see how much they had changed over the years. Trailers for Final Exam (red band, no less!) and a few other titles in the Deimos horror library are included on the disc. Final Exam entertains me. Pure and simple. I enjoy it for what it is instead of bashing it for not being something it didn’t intend to be. It never intended to be a gorefest like Friday the 13th. It aimed to be a little different, and I believe it succeeded. It aimed to add a little more character development to the slasher mix and its killer is genuinely creepy. For these things, I applaud Final Exam. It was probably a little too dry for drive-in audiences but I think with an open mind and a few years of horror maturity, that many more will open up to the virtues that this little campus slasher has to offer. Give it a chance. Seriously! Buy it!

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