"Some may pass the test...God help the rest."
Before you get scared by my low ratings and click away, hear me out. I could kiss BPI for giving us this small slasher from 1981, even though the flick isn't that good. You see, I was raised on slashers, my all-time favorite horror niche. I want every single one of them in my collection--especially those from the late '70s and early '80s, the heyday of the genre. So while I can't in good conscience tell you this is even close to being a good movie, I am positively giddy to finally have it in my DVD collection.
Final Exam is an odd entry in the slasher canon--it doesn't have a fresh idea in its 90 minutes, but it isn't as laughably bad as some other stinkers from the same era. And that's part of the problem: It's so tame, and all of the kills are tepid affairs--most are quick jump-and-stab sequences that lack any originality, and we get very little chase sequences (part of the fun is watching the victims put up a fight!). There's very little blood, and for those who care (which doesn't include me) there's very little boob. The script is even too lazy to exploit standard slasher themes and conventions to useful effect.
After two lovers are killed in their convertible, word of their grizzly demise travels to nearby rural Lanier College (the film was shot at Gardner-Webb University and Limestone College in the Carolinas). We're quickly introduced to students who seem completely unaffected by the carnage: "You call that a mass murderer? Two lousy people?! I call that a piker!" notes one douchebag who--when he realizes one of the victims was the rival school's quarterback--adds, "We might be able to take them this year!" (Did people ever use the word "piker"?!)
The school year is coming to a close, and only a small group of kids remain as the final day of exams arrives (after the first scene, the rest of the film takes place on one day). The campus is soon shaken by a random sniper attack that turns out to be a false alarm, a tasteless frat prank that--once again--doesn't seem to bother too many people, including the authorities (so when the students really need help later, they'll just be accused of crying wolf). It's an odd, out-of-nowhere scene--more disturbing now than it was 27 years ago given the recent Virginia Tech tragedy and other real-life school shootings.
Like the plot, the characters are a dull lot. Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) is quickly established as the good girl, while blond friends Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) and Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, who also appeared in another slasher needing a DVD release, Killer Party) are clear killer bait. Geeky Radish (Joel S. Rice, getting in a few amusing lines) has a crush on Courtney (resulting in a few unintentionally funny scenes), and spends a lot of time waxing philosophic about serial killers ("Senseless murders are a modern phenomenon. Can I help it if people are crazy? These types of murders happen all the time!"). Meanwhile, Janet is in love with Gamma pledge Gary (Terry W. Farren), who's frequently at the mercy of frat torturers Wildman (Ralph Brown) and Mark (John Fallon, sporting a fantastic feathered haircut).
You can thank me for clearing up their names here, because it too me a long time to figure them out--proof that the script couldn't care less about its indistinguishable characters (combined with a less-than crisp audio track, I wasn't sure of Courtney's name until 52 minutes in, and I didn't even know Mark's name until the 1 hour, 5 minute mark!). All become prey to a mop-top killer (Timothy L. Raynor) who's never explained or identified (one of the few unique things about this film), a generic-looking schlub who lurches around in a slow, far-from-scary stride.
Run Gary, Run!
Director Jimmy Huston does very little with the camera, relying on predictable shots that frequently (and poorly) rip off Halloween (the piano theme also echoes that masterpiece's iconic score). With extremely under-developed characters and only perfunctory scene composition, there's never any real sense of fear. Final Exam is like a mildly menacing movie--by 1981 made-for-late-night-television standards. Worst of all, there's no sense of mystery with the killer's identity.
Compared to similar slashers, it doesn't stand out for reasons good or bad. Similar campus-based entries might not be great films, but at least they have a little flair. But that didn't stop Jamie Kennedy from giving Final Exam a shout-out in Scream 2:
Killer: "What's your favorite scary movie?"
Randy: "Showgirls. Absolutely frightening. What's yours? Wait...let me guess: The House on Sorority Row? The Dorm that Dripped Blood? Splatter University? Graduation Day? Final Exam? Am I close?"
*(Where's Fatal Games, Randy?!)
Huston has a few individual shots that are effective, all of them relying on the dark silhouette of the killer (hello, Halloween!). And the final sequence gets a little better, a tower chase with one moment of spirited aggression (even if it's been done to death). Interestingly, there are a few frames reminiscent of other slashers released in 1981: the shot of the killer's shoes was seen in Friday the 13th Part 2, while Lisa's kissing of a hand from behind (that's not your boyfriend, sweetie!) is also seen in Halloween II. The director also adds a few humorous touches that will prompt a half-hearted smile.
Still, you get the sense that everyone here is just going through the motions. The story and characters don't have any sense of real-world relation--everything looks and feels like sets and actors filming a movie, even though the performers (for the most part) are okay. The script frequently doesn't make sense, but it usually doesn't in these films. Courtney proves to be a more intelligent target than most "final girls" (loved the freezer push!), but lord does she make a lot of noise when she's trying to hide.
Don't get me wrong--the acting is far from good. My favorite moment of the entire film has annoying Elizabeth (Mary Ellen Withers, wearing mom jeans!) yelling in a dorm hall, a scene that becomes notable when Withers reaches back with her right hand to fix a wedgie, the actress temporarily oblivious to the fact that she's being filmed ("She's the most bizarre character," notes a wise moderator in the audio commentary). This is the only film the actress ever did, and that's her legacy...poor thing! (I'm guessing the cast and crew may be particularly obscure given this was made around the 1980 actor's strike; other films from that time, like Student Bodies, had an equally green cast).
Final Exam ultimately can't pass the quality test, and doesn't earn any extra credit for style or originality. But I still can't help but love its mediocre mentality. It takes me back to my days as a naïve little kid who sought out scares and was fascinated by slasher films--even the bad ones. Thank you, BPI, for this trip back in time.
The good news first: This release restores the film to its original aspect ratio, and the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is (to my knowledge) the first time Final Exam has been available that way. But the picture here isn't much different or better than my full-frame Embassy VHS copy. Nothing here is sharp, and excessive grain is present throughout. Dark scenes are the most problematic--a few very brief shots (especially one in the opening scene) are inexcusably awful, while most of the other dark scenes are accompanied by a green tint that hugs the left side of the frame. You'll also get annoyed with Cecile Bagdadi's striped sweater--the lines on it become distracting with some shimmer ("I had to wear that same outfit for six weeks," she notes in the audio commentary. "I was so done with those stripes."). A few shots have brief image shaking and light flicker, and film specs are present at various times. Still, for a small, cheap slasher film from 1981, I'm not sure how much better this film can look. Frankly, I'm happy to see it widescreen if nothing else.
Equally unimpressive is the mono soundtrack, which also has nothing to distinguish itself from the VHS release. I had to crank the volume up to try and understand a lot of the dialogue--much of which is low (try and figure out everyone's name...I dare you!).
Here's where the disc makes up for it, providing a modest yet entertaining batch of extras that the film barely deserves. Leading the way is a great audio commentary moderated by Julia Marchese (a genre fan and programmer at New Beverly Cinema, a revival theater in Los Angeles) and musician/horror fanatic Deron Miller with actors Cecile Bagdadi (Courtney), Joel S. Rice (Radish) and Sherry Willis-Burch (Janet). All of them have great affection for the project, which makes for a wonderful listen.
It's a nice mix of horror movie nostalgia and funny comments on the script and filming gaffes, a great tribute to the fun experience the cast had making it (the trio recalls how everyone sang "Another One Bites the Dust" when "killed" actors left the set). They share fun facts about the film (including prop/set design decisions), point out crew members that served as extras and mock the '80s fashion/hairstyles. "It's kind of like a campus comedy, and if you're smart enough or experienced enough with these movies, you appreciate the fact that you're gonna have to wait for the carnage to happen," says Miller, who calls the film a mix of Halloween, Porky's and Animal House. I don't quite agree with Marchese and Miller's assessment of the film's influence, and Marchese incorrectly notes that the film gets referenced by Jamie Kennedy in the original Scream. She does, however, provide an interesting alternative idea about the film's killer.
Bagdadi notes that one sequence was edited out during the final chase (look for a knife planted in the killer that you never see her stab him with!), while all of them have fun pointing out Mary Ellen Withers' infamous butt grab (she's known thereafter as "Elizabeth, the girl who picks her wedgie"). Rice (who also appeared in the framing scenes of Terror in the Aisles) recalls how he and Bagdadi were signed for a three picture deal if the film was a hit (it wasn't), and we also learn that actor Ralph Brown lost consciousness during one scene (they also call out actor John Fallon on his lukewarm performance). Burch--who Miller thinks was made up to look like P.J. Soles--shares how she almost bought the film later: "I saw that it was on VHS...but it was such a small release, and it was like $80 or something. And I thought, 'I'm not gonna spend $80 on this movie!'"
The gang also points out a few amusing things about the crew, including how actor Sam Kilman (the sheriff) doubled as a dialect coach ("I don't know why we needed a dialect coach," Bagdadi wonders). And you have to watch the closing credits, where they all get a chuckle at the amusing name of the dolly grip who doubled as "cafeteria worker", something I missed on my first watch.
Up next are brief video interviews (totaling 11:34) with the three actors, who talk about casting, shooting and their lives since. There's a little repetition from the audio commentary, but this is still a fun watch. It's nice to see them all have fond memories of the shoot, and all are good sports about it. Bagdadi again shares how she almost wasn't cast because she was a bad screamer, but director Jimmy Huston became so happy with her lung progress that he ended up using her screams for other characters in the film. Rice and Burch ("It's funny--or someone who doesn't watch slasher movies, I made two of them!") talk about the hardest part about filming some scenes--trying to fight the anticipation of upcoming conflict.
Also included is the film's trailer (a red one!), which spoils a lot of the shocks and further shows the "influence" Halloween had on the film and its marketing strategy (the narrator says "He's come back!" twice...had they no shame?!). Also included are trailers for four other releases.
How can I recommend a movie that isn't that good? Let's face it...if you don't like slasher films, you probably wouldn't have clicked on this review. If you've read this far, you just know you want to see it. Final Exam is a tame, almost bloodless entry in the genre. It copies from much stronger films (primarily Halloween), and doesn't have very creative kills, fun chase sequences or original ideas. But as a slasher addict, I'm still thrilled to have it in my library, weak transfer and all. Combined with the modest yet entertaining extras--a great audio commentary and brief cast interviews--the release shows that BPI cares as much about bad horror films as I do, and that's refreshing. This disc takes me back to the joy of my childhood, allowing me to feel that rush of seeing a slasher again--even if it isn't a good one. Recommended, but only for genre geeks like me.