Originally issued by Code Red when they were distributed by BCI a few years ago, Jimmy Huston's 1981 slasher Final Exam is back on DVD once again thanks to Scorpion Releasing who are using the title to help launch their Katarina's Nightmare Theater line.
The film begins with a pair of college students making out in a car only to get sliced and diced by an unseen maniac. From here we cut to the campus of Lanier College where students are hustling and bustling all over the place because, as the title implies, it's Final Exam time. First and foremost is an effeminate nerdy guy named Radish (Joel S. Rice) who gets word of the killing and assumes the worse is yet to come. Radish has some sort of serial killer paranoia going on and is evidently fixated on the dark side of humanity. This means he's the first to freak out when a bunch of frat boys show up in a van dressed like terrorists and sporting ski masks and machine guns, opening fire at various students who drop dead right there on the grass. It turns out to be nothing more than an elaborate joke, but a dumb jock named Wildman (Ralph Brown) doesn't think it's too funny when the sheriff gives him trouble. Oh, and the coach is getting ready to go bow hunting with the alcoholic security guard - we can't forget that part.
While Radish is prepping for his tests and making goo-goo eyes at a cute coed named Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) the jocks are stealing test papers, the faculty members are making out and frat boys are being tied to trees and doused with ice - all normal collage life activity, for the most part. This all changes rather suddenly when a chubby guy with dark hair (Tim Raynor) shows up out of nowhere and starts slaughtering everyone in sight, be it in the kitchen or the dorm room or right out there on the campus lawn.
Say what you will about this one, slasher fans, but it's nothing if not unpredictable. While most movies of this kind keep a steady flow of murders going throughout the movie to build up tension and suspense and keep us scared, here we start off with a bang and then basically spend an hour or so watching frat boys do dumb stuff and watching Radish drink Irish whiskey and flirt with Courtney. There's really no build up here, nothing to indicate that a serial killer is making his way here nor any reason given why he would do what he does - he simply shows up an hour in, lumbers around a few buildings, sneaks his way down a dumb waiter that doesn't look like it would be big enough for him, and then kills people.
It might sound like this would all be a chore to sit through but amazingly, it's not. Final Exam is slow, yes, and it isn't all that gory and it certainly isn't sexy but it is a fun movie thanks to some interesting and enjoyable characters, first and foremost, Courtney and Radish. It's fun to watch these two dorky kids kinda-sorta flirt with one another and we get to know them enough to like them by the time it all hits the fan. Then there's Wildman, the biggest, dumbest jock on the entire campus and so convinced of his own status that he runs around with his name on his shirt. If he's not launching Columbine style terrorist attacks in the name of humor (and stealing tests) then he's trying to steal pills to sell to stoners or engaging in homoerotic hazing rituals. If this movie were simply ninety minutes of Wildman doing his thing, for some that would probably be enough to warrant a recommendation right there. By the time we actually get to the killings, it's almost secondary - but they are reasonably well done if only moderately gory. Raynor, as lumbering and dopey as he is at times, can make an imposing presence, something he proves in the big finale where he finally meets face to face with the last girl standing. He's never given a name or a motive, but that makes him all the more interesting in some ways, simply because that doesn't happen very often in slasher movies. There's something to be said for the film's almost charming simplicity and if it's not always the scariest horror movie ever made, it somehow manages to rise above itself and hold our interest.
Final Exam's transfer, taken from elements restored in high definition according to the box copy, looks pretty good. Yes, there are a few spots where the colors look just a tiny bit off and a few more spots where things are pretty soft but this was a movie made in the early 80s and on a modest budget so some minor imperfections are to be expected. Detail and clarity are quite good, however, and black levels are generally fine as well - all in all a pretty decent looking transfer.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono mix that's on this disc is also fine, delivering the movie with clear dialogue and properly balanced levels and devoid of any hiss or distortion. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided.
As this is a Katarina's Nightmare Theater release, the first in the line, you have the option to watch the movie on its own or with some amusing introductory footage featuring former WWE Diva and current TNA Knockout Katarina Leigh Waters who starts the disc off with an amusing skit before giving us some welcome trivia about the movie.
Katarina also pops up in a brand new commentary track which she moderates with the film's producer Myron Meisel. The track starts with Meisel discussing how the film came to be and how it was the 'brainchild' of a distribution company called Motion Picture Marketing. From there he talks about how it was meant to be an exploitation picture in the truest sense - cheap, derivative, fast and 'comprised of familiar elements.' From there he talks about casting the film, the locations, shooting on the campus, how they took the exploitation film formula and tried to put a good spin on it. He points out an interesting in-joke regarding a street sign and points out other similar details throughout the track, and talks about what it was like working with director Jimmy Huston. It's a pretty decent track, Meisel has got a good memory here and is plenty keen on sharing his stories about making this picture and Katarina does a good job of keeping him talking (though he doesn't seem to need much help!).
Aside from that, look for a few cast interviews featuring input from Sherry Willis-Burch (4:41), Cecile Bagdadi (3:26) and of course, Radish himself, Joel Rice (6:30). Each interviewee talks about how they heard about the movie and how they came on board, what it was like working on the project and what they've been up to since the movie was made. A trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Scorpion releases, and some animated menus round out the extras.
Though it takes its time getting going, Final Exam is a pretty entertaining slasher film that, while lacking the excessive gore and nudity the genre is known for, manages to hold our interest with a few interesting characters and wacky set pieces. Scorpion's DVD is a good one, offering the film up in a very nice transfer and with a good selection of extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.