13th May2014

‘Final Exam’ [1981] Blu-Ray Review (Scream Factory)

by Nathan Smith

Stars: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, John Fallon, Terry W. Farren, Timothy L. Raynor, Sam Kilman, Don Hepner, Mary Ellen Withers | Written and Directed by Jimmy Huston

Final-Exam

Because of the scrappy, can-do success of Friday the 13th, audiences in cinemas were hit with a deluge of slasher movies, some pretty nifty and others that weren’t so hot. Though in my not so esteemed opinion, even the not so-hot ones had a roughshod, scattershot attitude that elevated them far above the generic knockoffs that this particularly unloved sub-genre would put out on a monthly basis. Some weeks, you’d get Just Before Dawn and others you get Splatter University.

The thing is, because of the profitability of these films, they were in cinemas for one week, made their budgets back and then zoomed out after making a decent killing (pun seriously unintended). They didn’t need to be anything special and why not? People were not going to these things for deep character and excellent scripts. No, they were going for the gore and scantily clad ladies. So, producers would take different slasher elements and mix and match until the final film would resemble something different from the last slasher film that stopped over in their town. It didn’t have to be anything special, and yet, some producers and writers and directors thought that maybe that wasn’t the case, that maybe they needed to see something that stuck out amongst the mass quantities of genre films.

Now, I hadn’t seen Final Exam before it landed at my house, and going into it, I had mixed reviews from some trusted colleagues, so I was a little wary booting it up. But my concerns were merely unwarranted. Final Exam might be one of the best slasher films I’ve seen in a long time.

The plot of Final Exam is very simple, a killer stalks coeds and jocks on the last day of the college semester. And yet, there are touches that writer-director Jimmy Huston throws into the works to give it that defining trait that helped it avoid being lumped in amongst all the rest. For example, the killer isn’t some vengeful friend of the characters in the film. Nope. It’s just some guy randomly murdering the people. There’s no motive, or name, the killer doesn’t even speak. To me, the unmotivated is spookier. And it’s a little like The Town that Dreaded Sundown (even the opening murders echo that famous set-piece from Sundown), in that the killer simply appears and from the sounds of it, has been doing this a long, long time. Because of the way the film is structured, it gives the audience the sense of seeing people simply wander into a horror movie. It creates a sense of unease. Because when we see him just wandering around campus, no one thinks otherwise, because he’s just another person. One of the characters even posits that he’s a guy who eats dinner in a restaurant with us, votes with us. He’s the guy next door.

The direction is sharp and Houston has got a knack for composing shots where the killer lingers either out of frame, particularly where the killer is just moving around. Some of that is Carpenter-esque stuff that he was doing in Halloween just three years earlier. Houston does another thing well by just letting the film move along rather than ratcheting up the body count to fill the slasher movie quota. After all, it’s a full hour before someone else bites the dust, and then once that happens, the characters fall off with a breakneck rapidity. Still, the leisurely pace affords up ample time to enjoy the characters and see that they aren’t just people with bulls-eyes on their backs. Everyone from the frat brothers to the geeks to the drunken campus police are people (though they aren’t filled out completely). Sure, some characters are just body count fodder, but others actually give a sense of inhabiting this world.

Another thing that Houston adds is the “terrorist attack” in the beginning of the film. Sure, it’s revealed as a lark set up by the lunkhead fraternity brothers, but in any other film, it would be shocking and harrowing, and something that could never, ever be done if the film would be remade. Simply put, school shootings are more prevalent in our society and the scene would play much more differently today. And the way the shooting is handled by students and faculty is so bizarre (they just shrug it off) is another of the film’s quirks, and they have more than a few.

We’ve got the conspiratorial Radish, probably my favorite and well-drawn out character in the whole film. I particularly love his random rant about Charles Whitman, predicting the school shooting just minutes later He’s funnily enough is set up as the hero, as a potential love interest with Courtney (who is set up as a “final girl” of sorts, and really only factors in barely in the film). The script sends Radish running full-fledged towards a big hero moment, only to be killed seconds later. Or Wildman, the loose cannon frat guy who when faced with the killer later on, charges headlong into him, and dies as a result. The peppering of nice character beats permeates throughout, and almost makes you feel like the director forgot he was making a slasher movie (though there are the standard clichés like your POV/heavy breathing shots or the gratuitous scantily clad coed, even leading me to question if they were clichés at this point). Unfortunately with all that Houston does, the latter half places us in the position of co-conspirator to the murders, forcing us to watch as these characters die (though unlike its brethren, the deaths are not as gory as they could be, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily).

The audio commentary features all the principals is an engaging experience. They all have a rapport that indicates that they picked up right from where they left off in shooting the film, and it moves briskly dropping tidbits of trivia and pointing out fun bitsthat the viewer may not have picked up on. It’s quite the fun listen and one loves to hear precisely how much the actors actually liked the film and seem to be huge fans of it in its own right.

There are a few quick interviews on the Blu-Ray with the cast. Joel Rice, who played Radish, has some nice tidbits of recollection regarding his casting in the film, the headache of night shoots and the response to the film (which was negative simply because people hated the lack of resolution with the killer). Then, Cecile Bagdadi reveals that her scream was so bloodcurdling for the audition that it was reused for other girls in the film ala Blow Out. And she touches on the common themes of going through the motions of shooting a film for the first time, and that she’s all but stopped acting. And finally a five minute interview with Sherry-Willis Burch who reveals that she was placed in the film because she was working at the production company as a secretary and simply got the role versus having to audition. And finally a theatrical trailer rounds out the package.

The Final Exam Blu-Ray looks gorgeous, giving the bright North Carolina locations a sense of lusciousness and vibrancy and similarly allows us to see precisely how sharp the night scenes are and how the darkness of Lanier College was utilized to hide that killer in the shadows. The score sounds fantastic and creates the perfect mood, by not using a thunderous score, the film has a moodier atmosphere rather than a shrieking, thunderous score like other earlier incarnations. Scream Factory has cemented themselves as the Criterion Collection for aficionados of horror and the culturally obscure.

Final Exam is out now on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.

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