Tuesday, May 13, 2014

FINAL EXAM (1981) Blu-ray Review

Final Exam (1981) d. Jimmy Huston (USA)

Released during the thick of the stalk n’ slash heyday, the setting for writer/director Huston’s seemingly standard programmer is that most popular of locales, a college campus, with an assortment of nubile characters trotted out for the slaughter at the hands of a homicidal maniac. However, Final Exam has a few tricks up its sleeve; whether fans will appreciate said deviations from the norm is another question altogether.

I generally try to avoid spoilers when reviewing, but in this case, I believe it’s for the best to manage expectations from the get-go by providing a pertinent tidbit of information. Almost every other slasher flick deals with its antagonist in one of two ways: 1) the identity of the killer is kept secret from the audience in order to preserve the mystery until the big reveal in the final act, or 2) we know who the killer is and are forced to watch him close in on his helpless (and often clueless) prey.

However, the twist of the blade here is that Final Exam’s human monster is a complete cipher. His identity is kept from us throughout – we never find out who this guy in the beaten-up Army fatigues is. He’s just a guy. A big, powerful guy, but with no backstory, no reason for killing, not even a mask to hide his features. He’s just a nameless Ginsu-toting gent who has targeted this particular group of co-eds and doesn’t stop until he has his fateful confrontation with our established Final Girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi). No reveal, no answers, no nothing. It’s so crazy, it’s almost revolutionary. And yet, by flagrantly chucking out one of the cardinal rules of slasherdom, unsuspecting viewers are bound to be taken aback, especially since he's not nearly as interesting as the disembodied voice of "Billy" in Bob Clark's Black Christmas.

One can understand Huston’s desire to tweak the established formula, and to emphasize the randomness of violence in our culture. Our resident film geek and big-brained horror fan Radish (Joel L. Rice) explicitly states the film’s subtext: “People are killed every day for no reason.” But rather than allowing us to identify with our everyman killer as Peter Bogdanovich did in Targets, Huston keeps us at an arm’s length – we know he’s there, but we don’t know anything about him. In the meantime, we get to know everything about his victims. There’s no shortage of character development, as nearly 50 minutes go by before anyone hits the bricks. We learn about their lives, loves, challenges, ambitions, affairs, flirtations, animosities, G.P.A.s....

Then, after all that chit-chat, THEY ALL HIT THE BRICKS. And for all their individuality in life, every character dies in a fairly generic fashion. The musclehead jock (Ralph Brown) is flung about like a ragdoll, the brain is outsmarted, the seductress (DeAnna Robbins) can’t flirt her way out of it, etc. If they’re just going to be picked off by the numbers, what is the point in establishing who they are? Especially when our marauding maniac has no personality at all? It’s as though someone stuck a slasher third act onto a co-ed comedy a la Animal House or Porky’s...which might be interesting if it wasn’t billed first and foremost as a slasher. It’s one thing to thwart expectations, but something unusual and/or memorable in its stead would have been appreciated.

There is one pleasantly shocking, show-stopping sequence at around the 15-minute mark involving a gang in a van (you’ll know it when you see it), but one that reveals its toothlessness as the scene plays out. One could argue that the sequence is a commentary on Huston’s commentary, but one could just as easily argue that it’s simply more filler, less thriller.

With these crosses to bear, it’s not surprising that the film has slipped into obscurity over the years, but apparently still has its devotees. Code Red released it to DVD back in late 2008, and now Shout! Factory has ported over those supplemental features while giving the overall presentation a much-appreciated facelift for its Blu-ray debut. These include interviews with Bagdadi, Rice, and Sherry Willis-Burch, all of whom were making their big screen debut with Final Exam, and across the board they express great affection for the experience, their fellow castmates, and the film as a whole. (Willis-Burch only did only other feature, 1986’s bizarre and underrated possession/slasher mashup Killer Party, while Bagdadi left the business altogether. Rice, seen in 1984’s fright flick compendium Terror in the Aisles as a terrified filmgoer, turned to producing TV movies where he has remained quite successful.) The commentary track, also recorded in 2008 with New Beverly Cinema’s Julia Marchese and Darren Miller of Rock World moderating alongside the three featured actors. It’s a genuinely enjoyable track, with lots of laughter and fangirling from Marchese (who emphatically states that Jamie Kennedy's "Randy" character in Scream is inspired directly by Radish).

Plus, knowing what I was in for, the movie admittedly went down a lot easier the second time around. Is that a reluctant endorsement for repeat viewings?  Perhaps so.

Final Exam is available now from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE.


--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine


  1. I've never been able to get over the anonymity of the killer and his motives in this film. I had figured it was merely lazy writing and a quick script for a quick dollar during the height of the slasher era.

    In the extras, did the cast/crew say this was deliberate commentary on senseless violence -- or is that your own and/or Radish's imputation?

    1. Anon, I couldn't agree with you more about the ineffectiveness of the "no reason" (to quote RUBBER) motive. That said, yes, they do explain that they really were deliberately going against the established slasher grain by not having a backstory or a big mystery reveal. It's just a guy running around randomly killing people and these are the folks in his path. I can see how they (Huston, et al) might have thought the novelty could have made it stand out from the crowd, but it doesn't really work for me. Yes, random killers are scary in real life, but that doesn't necessarily translate into entertaining cinema.