Directed by Jimmy Huston
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Scream Factory is frequently lauded for their lavish collector’s editions that tend to stand as the definitive release for many horror classics, but it’s their “standard” (quotes because even non-CE releases are given a boatload of extras) editions that often highlight forgotten films horror fans would be wise to check out. More often than not, these films are wild, outrageous, sleazy, and would play like gangbusters to the right midnight crowds – titles like Ninja III: The Domination (1984), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), TerrorVision (1986), and The Video Dead (1987) immediately spring to mind. They’re films that have attained a fervent cult following over the years despite being far less well known than the “heavy hitters” everyone is familiar with. Because Scream Factory has such a devoted fanbase, many of these unsung titles are finally getting some much needed exposure. Final Exam (1981), a low-budget “dead teenager” film produced during the height of the slasher craze, is the latest to join the ranks, though it isn’t quite as memorable as the aforementioned titles. The picture does differ from most stalk-and-slash films in that the focus is primarily on the characters, not the killer. In fact, the killer is only glimpsed until the climax, and even then he’s shown to be nothing more than a silent, relentless brute. No backstory, no explanations, no mercy. The real stars of the film are characters with names like Radish and Wildman. Final Exam might not be a great film, but it is a great time.
After opening with the requisite first kill to set the tone, the action moves to the quiet campus of Lanier College. It’s finals week, a time when students stress out over good grades and let off steam with some pranks and partying. Everyone is enjoying an idyllic day under the sun in, out in the quad, when a group of masked gunmen burst out of a van and gun down half a dozen students and escape with their bodies. Radish (Joel S. Rice), the stereotypical nerd, quickly calls the police after the massacre, which is soon revealed to be an elaborate prank by the brothers of Gamma Delta. Good luck getting away with something similar – and not being killed – these days. The cops arrive and chalk it all up to boys being boys, but now the brothers are all angry with Radish for bringing the cops into the situation. They’ve all got bigger problems, though, because there’s a maniac stalking all of the students on campus, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. And this guy is brutal when he kills, violently dispatching co-eds left and right. Almost nobody is safe, except for Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), the erudite brainiac who encompasses all the qualities every Final Girl should have.
It’s interesting that the filmmakers stated there was a conscious effort made to focus on characters and not the gory act of them being killed because each death in the movie is fairly brutal. The camera doesn’t linger on the action or aftermath so much, but just knowing how these kids are about to get dispatched is enough to elicit the right emotion. This dude is seriously sadistic, too. He’s a little bit like Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) in The Slumber Party Massacre in that he’s a silent stalker who speaks with his actions and isn’t personified in any way. Although, Thorn did speak a little during the climax of his film; this guy – who remains nameless – never utters a word. It’s a bit unnerving, only adding to the emotionless façade he conveys on screen. Most films of this ilk feature a former nerd out for revenge, or a teacher who snapped… there’s usually some semblance of motivation. But, really, a man who has nothing to go on other than an urge to kill is scariest of all – think Michael Myers before any of his sequels were produced.
The characters in the film aren’t exactly complex and deep. Most operate as standard archetypes – the nerd, the tough jock, the preppy, the good girl – but it’s the enthusiasm of the actors that imbues their respective roles with more than rote dialogue and actions. Radish is the most interesting of the bunch. He’s the class nerd, but his primary nerd interests are serial killers and mass murderers. His dorm room is replete with horror movie posters – check out that The Toolbox Murders (1978) one sheet! – and books like “Helter Skelter”. Despite his preference for the strange & unusual, he’s not played up as a red herring. Final Exam doesn’t try to play those kinds of tricks. We aren’t spending the entire film trying to figure out who the killer is because it’s established early on some lone maniac is doing the work. There’s only one other truly memorable character here – Wildman (Ralph Brown). As his moniker suggests, he’s the overly-enthusiastic and completely brain dead alpha male of the frat boys. Think Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds (1984) with less brawn. When he isn’t using his poor judgment skills to dress up like a masked gunman to prank fraternity pledges, he’s trying to score pills to sell for some quick cash. Wildman also has the dubious distinction of being in the film’s best kill scene; one that involves an awesome reveal of the killer, a two-minute countdown clock (it’s in the gym), and a death so suffocating that Brown actually was choked unconscious on set during filming.
Final Exam was savaged by critics upon release, and it isn’t likely a reevaluation all these years later would yield better reviews. It’s not very bloody, it isn’t very funny, and there’s not much to distinguish it from most other low-budget slashers of that era. Still, the enjoyment comes from the simplicity of the film and a lack of pretension. Director Jimmy Huston (no relation to “the” Huston family) wisely puts the onus on his actors to carry the picture, and because most of the main characters have distinct, memorable personalities it’s just as enjoyable watching them act as it is watching them get killed.
Final Exam sports a 1.78:1 1080p image that was mastered from the original camera negative. After moving past the always-rough optical credits, we settle into a proficient image that has a lot of good qualities. Grain remains fine throughout, never getting too heavy. Definition is quite sharp, and details really come through in close-up shots. Color saturation is on point, especially red, which is a recurring dominant hue during many key scenes. Things get a little dicier when night falls, and the image quality along with it. Black levels turn slightly hazy, with some crushing evident. Image details are lost in shadows, too. Still, this is a very competent image for a 30+ year old low-budget slasher.
An English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track deftly carries the film’s sound. Composer Gary Scott delivers a moody, intense score with lots of tense moments. Scott does lack restraint in some scenes where silence would have been more effective, but there’s a nice dichotomy of lush piano and shrill, piercing tones that help sell the horror. Fidelity is strong, as per usual with Scream Factory’s releases. Dialogue is discernible and easy to understand, though on occasion there is some hiss present. The track’s overall presence is strong, however, and this mono track does an excellent job of making the most of a limited soundfield. Subtitles are included in English.
The audio commentary features cast members Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi & Sherri Willis-Burch. I find cast reunion commentaries are typically a lot of fun; it’s like hanging out with a group of friends you haven’t seen in years – which, really, is what they’re doing. There is some discussion about shooting locations (it was shot in North Carolina), Jimmy Huston’s previous work (he did the cult comedy My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987), which rules), and how everyone was so hopped up on energy while shooting that it was like one big college party for weeks. Sounds like a blast. A few interviews are included with cast members Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherri Willis-Burch. The film’s theatrical trailer finishes out the bonus features.
3 out of 5
2 out of 5