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
Before We Vanish Review – A Quirky and Original Take on Alien Invasions
Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
During the J-horror rampage of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (aka Pulse). A dark, depressing, and morose tale of ghosts that use the internet to spread across the world, the film’s almost suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere pervaded across every frame of the film. Because of my love of this film, I was eager to see the director’s upcoming movie Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (aka Before We Vanish), which follows three aliens who recently arrived on Earth and are preparing to bring about an alien invasion that will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be barely a horror title but was instead a quirky and surreal dramedy that tugged at my heartstrings.
Admittedly, I was thrown completely for a loop as the film begins with a scene that feels perfectly at home in a horror film. Akira (Tsunematsu), a teenage girl, goes home and we enter moments later to blood splashed on the walls and floor and bodies strewn about. However, the disturbing visuals are spun around as the young girl walks down a highway, her clothes and face streaked with blood, Yusuke Hayashi’s music taking on a lighthearted, almost jaunty attitude. From there, we learn of the other two aliens (yes, she’s an alien and it’s not a secret or a twist, so no spoilers there): Amano (Takasugi), who is a young man that convinces a sleazy reporter, Sakurai (Hasegawa), of his true form and tasks Sakurai with being his guide, and Shinji (Matsuda), the estranged husband of Narumi (Nagasawa).
What sets these aliens, and their mission, apart from other invasion thrillers is their means of gathering information. They’re not interested in meeting leaders nor do they capture people for nefarious experimentations. Rather, they steal “concepts” from the minds of people, such as “family”, “possession”, or “pest”. Once these concepts are taken, the victim no longer has that value in their mind, freed from its constraints.
While this may seem like a form of brainwashing, Kurosawa instead plays with the idea that maybe knowing too much is what holds us back from true happiness. A man obsessed with staking claim to his family home learns to see the world outside of its walls when “possession” is no longer a part of his life. A touchy boss enters a state of child-like glee after “work” has been taken. That being said, there are other victims who are left as little more than husks.
Overly long at 130 minutes, the film does take its time showing the differences between the aliens and their individual behaviors. Amano and Akira are casually ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to send a beacon to begin the alien invasion, no matter how many must die along the way, while Shinji is the curious and almost open-minded one, whose personal journey finds him at one point asking a priest to envision and describe “love”, a concept that is so individualistic and personal that it can’t be taken, much less fathomed, by this alien being. While many of these scenes are necessary, they could have easily been edited down to shave 10-15 minutes, making the film flow a bit more smoothly.
While the film begins on a dark note, there is a scene in the third act that is so pure and moving that tears immediately filled my eyes and I choked up a little. It’s a moment of both sacrifice and understanding, one that brings a recurring thread in the story full circle.
With every passing minute, Before We Vanish makes it clear that it’s much more horror-adjacent than horror. An alien invasion thriller with ultimate stakes, it will certainly have appeal to genre fans. That being said, those who go in expecting action, violence, and terror will certainly be disappointed. But those whose mind is a bit more open to a wider range of possibilities will find a delightful story that attempts to find out what it means to be human, even if we have to learn the lesson from an alien.
Before We Vanish is a beautiful, wonderful tale that explores what it means to be human when faced with the threat of extinction.
Delirium Review – Bros, Cameras And A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On
Starring Mike C. Manning, Griffin Freeman, Ryan Pinkston
Directed by Johnny Martin
When will these testosterone-overloaded frat bros with cameras ever learn that pissing off the evil souls of the departed all in the name of amusement won’t get you anywhere but wrecked? Same goes for filmmakers: when will they learn that found-footage exploits set in a house of pure sadism are something of a wrung-out affectation? Oh well, as long as people keep renting them, they’ll continue to get manufactured…which might or might not be to the benefit of the horror film-watching populous.
Delirium opens with a poor lad, strapped with a GoPro, running for his life through a labyrinth of haunted territory, praying for an escape…and it’s a foregone conclusion as to what happens to this trespassing individual. We then relocate our focus towards a collection of (ahem), “gentlemen” self-titled as The Hell Gang, and their escapades are about as profound as their grasp on the English language and its verbiage. The words “dude”, creepy”, and the term “what the fuck” are thrown about so much in this movie it’ll make your head spin to the point of regurgitation. Anyway, their interest in the home of the Brandt clan is more piqued now than ever, especially considering one of their own has gone missing, and they’ve apparently got the gonads to load up the cameras, and traverse the property after-hours, and against the warnings of the local law-enforcement, who surprisingly are just inadequate enough to ignore a dangerous situation. The cursed family and the residence has quite the illustrious and bleak history, and it’s ripe for these pseudo-snoopers to poke around in.
Usually I’m curb-stomping these first person POV movies until there’s nothing left but a mash of blood, snot and hair left on the cement, but Martin’s direction takes the “footage” a little bit outside of the box, with steadier shots (sometimes) and a bit more focus on the characters as they go about their business. Also, there are a few genuinely spooky scenes to speak of involving the possession of bodies, but there really isn’t much more to crow about, as the plot’s basically a retread of many films before it, and with this collection of borderline-douches manning the recording equipment, it’s a sad state of affairs we’re in that something such as this has crept its way towards us all again. I’m always down for jumping into a cold grave, especially when there could be a sweet prize to be dug up in all that dirt, but Delirium was one of those movies that never let you find your footing, even after you’ve clawed your way through all of the funereal sediment – take a hard pass on this one.
Got about a half-dozen bros with cameras and a wanton will to get slaughtered on camera, all the while repetitively uttering the same phrases all damn day long? Then my friends, you’ve got yourself a horror movie!
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility
Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita
Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita
The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.
The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.
The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.
From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.
The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.
Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.”
The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.
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