Sunday, October 12, 2008

FINAL EXAM (1981) d. Jimmy Huston

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

When any motion picture gains a degree of commercial success, there is usually a rush to cash in on the resultant buzz and within a few months a multitude of facsimiles can be seen on the cinematic horizon. Whether it was the sword and sandal flicks of the 1950s that sought to imitate epics like BEN-HUR, the biker films of the 1960s that aped EASY RIDER or the demon-spawn movies of the 1970s that tried to replicate ROSEMARY’S BABY, copycats are part of the theatrical landscape. Following hard on the heels of the triumphs of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th in the late 1970s came a proliferation of slasher films of every imaginable type. Some were serious, while some were silly. Some were stylish, but others were slapdash. After nearly a decade of slasher-rama at the box office, by the end of the 1980s some of the momentum had died away, but not after movie-goers were bathed in arterial spray. FINAL EXAM is one of the many slasher clones from the height of that era. It is a film that borrows heavily from a variety of sources, but unlike its more illustrious predecessors, it is lacking in the most important elements a movie needs to be notable, and as a result it is more of a forgettable example of an amazingly enduring genre.

FINAL EXAM is the story of several coeds living a semi-educational but mostly fun-filled life at Lanier College during the end of Spring term finals. Young women like Courtney, Lisa and Janet as well as young men like Mark, “Wildman” and “Radish” split time between studying, hazing, partying and infantile hi-jinks, but little do they know that their halcyon days of youth are about to be interrupted. A knife-wielding killer slips onto campus and before anyone is aware, he begins thinning out the student body population. As the body count rises and jocks and geeks alike end up as carving practice, the remaining students are forced to explore the realities of “real life” in the most authentic of class room situations.

FINAL EXAM is a very inconsistent film that was clearly made with precious little money, less talent and not a great deal of skill or experience, but in the end it isn’t a total disaster. One of the strangest components of the movie is its story. From the opening scenes and introductory musical strains, it is grotesquely apparent that any viewer will be getting a rehash of some of the aura and concepts of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13th but it isn’t long before you realize it will come without any of the psychology and creative writing of the antecedents. For a film set on a college campus and a story about students, FINAL EXAM is a great deal less intelligent than the dumbest of dunces and in many cases it will leave most savvy viewers saying “huhhnnn?” For instance, there is no motivation or back story behind the killer, who must be a proponent of random acts of murder mixed with chaos theory, for he arrives to do his bloody deeds without reason or purpose other than senseless savagery. Most of the first two-thirds of the flick is spent developing a sense of campus life and the characters, but this is done in such an overly patient manner and with so very little action that much of that early stretch is as sleepy as an accounting pop quiz. We see nerds and frat boys, coaches and cuties and the viewer is bathed in the balm of student life. At first, I was pleased to see all the character development, something that is generally lacking from most modern films, but through the last acts of the story, all that character development went to waste as one character after another was put to the sword with their personas unfinished and their reasons for existence unclear. If it was the aim of writer/director Jimmy Huston to create an existentialist slasher film where no one reaches any form of actualization and the education of young people is made to be truly meaningless, he succeeded brilliantly. I just found it pointless.

The story had other strange qualities too. It often veered back and forth between “suspenseful” and showing qualities reminiscent of the “slob comedy”. In fact, it felt like a fair portion of the inspiration of this film was not just FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN, but ANIMAL HOUSE too with its obtuse drunks and jocks. This uncertainness about what kind of film FINAL EXAM wanted to be not only adversely affected the pace but also the tone. Every time I felt like we were finally going to move in the direction of a gripping slasher film, lightheartedness often times bordering on absurdity was injected back into the story, and the film lost momentum and focus. For every moment where some small smidgeon of “atmosphere” is stitched into this gaudy tapestry that are bad puns and obvious caricatures created that made the balance of the narrative feel like it wanted to be a slasher spoof, but that interesting idea was made void when FINAL EXAM became all slasher flick by the end. It was during the last 30% of the motion picture that a true sense of purpose emerged and the flick developed a head of steam. In the last act though, it became evident that the killer was no one of any consequence and the laboriously crafted energy was brought to a screeching halt when there was no true pay off.

There were other problems with the nuts and bolts of FINAL EXAM too. The acting was very irregular, with stiffs like Mark and Radish alternating with hams and buffoons like Janet and “Wildman”. The lovely Deanna Robbins who played Lisa gave a reasonably strong performance and Courtney, played by Cecile Bagdadi, could scream with the best of them. Overall though, the vast majority of the cast was clearly inexperienced and lacking in talent and the effect on the film was obvious. The casting of the film was another headscratcher, for there was a mix of northern and southern accents that left a feeling similar to putting on your shirt backwards. Even though Lanier College was supposed to be set in North Carolina and a college campus is usually a place with cosmopolitan mix of young people from all over, when one actor’s lines were delivered with a California flair while another sported a Deep South drawl, it was a little disconcerting. From a technical standpoint, FINAL EXAM had other issues too. The camera work was capably done but was uninspired at best. Most of the death scenes were shot on some interesting sets, but there was little mood developed and not a lot of creativity to the murder moments. For a film made during the height of late 70s and early 80s excesses of gore and nudity, this film was surprisingly restrained. Most of the killing scenes were not terribly explicit, nor were they very bloody. There was only one brief nude scene very late in the film when usually that kind of fare is waning rather than waxing. It almost seemed like FINAL EXAM was trying to ape its slasher film contemporaries but also recall some of the more genteel nature of past efforts like DEMENTIA 13 and PSYCHO. In the end, that only deepened the feeling of inconsistency.

There were even more technical issues with FINAL EXAM. Whether it is a problem with the original print or troubles with the transfer process, at the beginning of the film, the audio was very low and muddy and sometimes a little hollow sounding. There were stretches where I had to turn the volume up to 100% just to hear some of the dialogue. Past the half way point, I needed to turn the volume down as the sound became crisper and clearer. The visual clarity followed the same pattern. During parts of the first half of the film, there was a distinct graininess to scenes, but that dissipated as time passed. What was well done and it was probably entirely accidental was that a microcosm of that lost and unlamented time of the late 1970s and early 1980s was captured forever on film. Between the fashions, the music, the hairstyles and the flavor of the dialogue, FINAL EXAM serves wonderfully as a cinematic time capsule of a slasher clone, slasher spoof and school days/slob comedy. While better examples can probably be found of each and every genre, to have them all wrapped up in this somewhat passable movie makes it almost tempting to recommend, but not quite.

FINAL EXAM has a small but interesting extras menu. In addition to a worthwhile audio commentary with actors Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch, there are three cast interviews with the same actors totaling about 15 minutes. There are also five trailers of films from roughly the same vintage, including the FINAL EXAM trailer. While this is not “The Treasure of Montezuma” when it comes to special features, it is a fairly strong showing for a film that has not attained iconic status, is not a cult classic or even registers on most people’s movie radar anymore. Credit must be given to BCI Eclipse/Navarre for putting in the effort necessary to track down three cast members and spend some time with them.

FINAL EXAM will not likely take a prominent place on most people’s horror shelf, nor will it restructure the shape of slasher cinema past and present. However, for those who are collectors of the slasher genre and feel that need to complete their "crazed killer canon", FINAL EXAM should probably be added. It isn’t all that original or creative, but it is part of motion picture history and maintaining collections for the purpose of preservation and passing along something for posterity must be done by someone. God knows there is little today worth preserving unstained and at least this film was made with sincerity and good intentions. At least it felt that way.

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