Written by: Jon George, Neill Hicks, and Ronald Shusett
Directed by: Andrew Davis
Starring: Daryl Hannah, Rachel Ward, Adrian Zmed, and Joe Pantoliano
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“If you people want to survive, you better start looking and thinking like the forest.”
If you’re a fan of 80s slasher mayhem, chances are you’ve ventured into some dark woods a time or two. It was pretty much a perennial (or even semi-annual) setting for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s just a naturally creepy setting--there’s something a bit unsettling about the isolated wilderness that lends itself well to a horror film. Secondly, and probably more importantly, it’s also a really cheap and bountiful setting. It’s no wonder that film-makers everywhere were grabbing cameras and going there to film the latest backwoods slasher movie in the vein of Friday the 13th or The Burning.
One of these efforts was The Final Terror, a 1983 effort that was actually filmed in the golden slasher year of 1981. By the time the film was released, I imagine it confounded a target audience that had been weaned on explicit violence that seemed to escalate with each new offering. On the contrary, Andrew Davis’s film mostly only looks the part of a camp slasher with its woodsy setting and a prologue centering on the mutilation of a pair of frolicking lovers lined with all of the genre signposts (Interrupted coitus! Rigged corpses! Elaborate death-trap involving jagged can lids!). However, beyond these surface level affectations, The Final Terror proves to be less a rip-off of previous 80s splatter flicks and instead hearkens back to more rugged films of this ilk like Deliverance, Rituals, and Just Before Dawn.
The bulk of the story finds a group of forest rangers and their girlfriends embarking on a trip out into the woods, where the first night is pretty uneventful beyond some pranks and a campfire story. This particular story has local relevance, as it weaves the tale of a young girl who was raped by her own uncle in the nearby woods and eventually committed to the local nuthouse during her unholy pregnancy. 19 years later, her bastard offspring showed up and took her away from the asylum. Now, she supposedly haunts the woods, terrorizing anyone who dares to camp there. It seems like a pretty harmless story until some of the rangers end up missing; worse yet, some of them turn up dead, and there’s a pretty suspicious shack nestled in the woods that seems to be housing their remains.
By now, it should be obvious that I have a bit of a weakness for stuff like this. One of my local video stores was littered with slashers, and I spent many a weekend in either the woods or a sorority house (who could resist that setting especially?). The Final Terror was no doubt one of the many that got one look from me and was pretty much forgotten over the years. The fact that it didn’t leave much of an impression probably should have signaled something, and my sporadic revisits over the years have confirmed that it’s indeed rather unremarkable in many respects, particularly as it pertains to the expectations of the era’s slasher fare. Releasing a splatter flick with only a handful of deaths and meager amounts of bloodshed must have felt like counterprogramming at the time, and, while the attempt to generate suspense in lieu of gore is admirable, it only results in a bit of a dull film here, save for a few noteworthy bursts of style and quirks.
Chief among its aesthetic accomplishments is plunging audiences right into a dense, enclosing thicket. Shot on location in California’s Redwood forests, The Final Terror oozes a menacing atmosphere before its slasher formally introduces itself to the main cast. This is especially true when the scene shifts to night-time, when the ominous canopy is further blanketed in otherworldly blue hues, almost as if the characters have stepped right into their own campfire story. Davis consistently emphasizes the forest’s omnipotence, as it often envelopes the frame, swallowing its potential victims. Considering the setting doubles as the film’s most potent asset, Davis squeezes every ounce of atmosphere out of it and taps into the primal appeal of campfire tales to further set the scene. Sure, the particulars of this particular story are pretty wonky (I can’t imagine too many of us live near creepy mental institutions or woods housing an unstable incest victim), but it still taps into the universal dread that something is out there, lurking, waiting to claim trespassers. Good shit to roast some marshmallows to.
Unfortunately, once the scene is set, not much is done with it. It turns out that the something here is a largely-unseen, generic brute skulking around in hooded rags (I wonder if Craven was inspired by the look for My Soul to Take, now that I think about it), and its prey is a rather nondescript collection of clichés and nonentities. The Final Terror especially has its feet in two sandboxes here, as it features some of the typical slasher set: the pranking goofballs, the responsible duo, the oddball who serves as an obvious suspect once the slashing starts, etc. And yet the film largely resists the cartoonish, broad approach of its contemporaries by mimicking the low-key, more realistic tack of rugged survival films. The screenplay especially disregards whatever rules slashers are meant to adhere to since it spares the characters you assume to be instant goners and surprisingly dispatches those who usually manage to survive these films. There’s nothing particularly insightful or meta-textual about this—it’s just done naturally and amps up whatever suspense the film has. When the first couple of victims fall to the scythe, there’s a real “holy shit, what are the rest of these goofs gonna do?” sort of quality to it.
Surprisingly, the remaining characters are pretty sharp--you won’t see them investigating strange noises for no reason, nor will you see them fall for any trap that’s been set up for them. In fact, by the end of the film, they’re the ones laying the trap for the mysterious killer. It’s a different and probably more believable approach, but it also keeps the body count pretty low. People complain all the time about the inherent idiocy in slasher flicks, but this shows what happens when your characters are too smart. Maybe it would work if there were some genuine suspense or some sense of verve beyond the establishing shots; instead, it’s a surprisingly low-key trip into the woods for all the insanity--not only are they being hunted by some psychopath, but one of the bigger idiots gets high on mushrooms (every group has one!). Despite this, the film never really feels as interesting as it should—The Final Terror might be soaked in campfire lore and psychosexual mother-son drama, but it rarely takes on the form of those pulpy, ridiculous tales and instead plays things rather straight.
In fact, the film’s production lore has gained more notoriety than The Final Terror itself due to its problematic production and cast. It might not have seen the light of day if not for the eventual stardom of stars like Daryl Hannah and Adrian Zmed. Both are decent here, though it can hardly be said that either is given much to do. Most noteworthy here is Joe Pantoliano, who is arguably the most recognizable face at this point. Even here, you can tell he always had the ability to be naturally intense while being a bit slimy and weasel-like. There’s also some notable talent behind the camera--director Andrew Davis would go on to direct stuff like The Fugitive and help shepherd Steven Seagal to the big screen with Above the Law (thus earning him a lifetime pass). His talents aren’t immediately apparent in The Final Terror, but you can tell he knew his way around the camera thanks to a few inventive shots, such as a climactic death scene that’s shot from a unique perspective.
Also behind the scenes was Samuel Arkoff, here producing his first independent film after selling off American International Pictures in the early 80s. Much of the film’s history—including Arkoff’s involvement—is illuminated on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, which packs a commentary with Davis and a couple of interview segments with the cast and crew. “Finishing The Final Terror” is an especially fascinating look at how the film was eventually pulled off of the shelf and completed by post-production supervisor Allan Holzman and composer Susan Justin. It’s a revealing segment that reveals what it must feel like to salvage a movie and shape it into something that’s workable, and Holzman is candid about the challenges he confronted here, as he points out the film’s slow pace and lack of explicit violence.
He closes with the insistence that the film is good but not great, a sentiment I’m inclined to agree with, though Scream’s hi-def presentation is a bit of a revelation. Davis’s photography particularly benefits from the upgraded transfer, which was stitched together from multiple sources, per the disc’s disclaimer. The warning’s not as dire as it sounds: while the generally soft transfer sees some occasional fluctuations in color timing, the film looks lovely, as its strong visuals are highlighted. Its deep, foreboding forests have never looked so brooding on home video, that’s for sure. Having revisited The Final Terror a couple of times now, I still feel like it’s more of an obligatory entry in the backwoods slasher canon; it tosses a few intriguing wrinkles around its margins, but it’s a destination you arrive at only after visiting more lush, blood-soaked wilderness first. These woods are lonely and dark, but they aren’t too deep. Rent it!
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