The Film: 3/5
The golden age of the slasher film may have began with the surprising box office popularity of John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978, but it didn't officially get kicked into gear until two years later with the release of the first cash-ins, Prom Night and Friday the 13th. From then until the unnecessarily controversial debut of Silent Night, Deadly Night in late 1984 slasher horror ruled the screen and gave the major Hollywood studios something to really worry about as most of the best examples of the genre were independently financed and made by scrappy young filmmaking outlaws looking to make a name for themselves and earn plenty of bank at the ticket counters. This is possibly why the studios put the pressure on their hired guns in the Motion Picture Association of America to subject these low-budget outsider productions to stricter rules regarding the amounts of sex and violence they contained. Their willingness to avoid receiving the dreaded "X" rating that would cost them millions in potential profits doubtlessly made them more submissive to the MPAA's draconian guidelines. That's just my theory anyway.
There were about as many slasher movies being made back in the early 1980's as there are mega-budget blockbuster comic book superhero adventures invading the multiplexes practically on a monthly basis today. Of course they all couldn't be winners in terms of quality and profitability for that would upset the balance of nature and spawn even more annoying parental watchdog groups that already existed. Many a slasher was consigned to the scrap heap of cinematic history unless they could scrape together enough of an audience on home video to justify the amount of money that future releases would require. Somehow the 1981 North Carolina-lensed collegiate horror Final Exam, for want of a term that didn't sound so much like a cheeseball pun, made the cut. After two notable remastered releases on DVD through indie labels this less-known killer flick is stepping up to the big time with a brand new Blu-ray courtesy of the increasingly prolific Shout! Factory via their sci-fi/horror imprint Scream Factory. Apparently this must happen with every horror film from the 1980's whether they deserve it or not.
The students at the rural Lanier College (it must be rural but the local police force is one old, out-of-shape hick) are preparing for their final exams, while the school's ruling fraternity is more concerned with disregarding their studies and devoting the time they have remaining to parties and pranks. Low-key nice girl Courtney (Cecila Bagdadi) and campus geek Radish (Joel S. Rice) want to study hard and get passing grades. Frat president Mark (John Fallon) and his jock douchebag sidekick Wildman (Ralph Brown) stage a fake campus shooting that briefly attracts the authorities - I mean, authority - and enables Mark to cheat on his chemistry final. Carefree Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) would rather leverage her affair with her chemistry professor (Don Hepner) to keep her G.P.A. up than do any actual studying. Fraternity pledge Gary (Terry W. Farren) is attempting to juggle his duties to Mark and Wildman and his blossoming love for fellow student Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch) and doing a lousy job.
About an hour into this 90-minute (incorrectly listed on the Blu-ray packaging as 94) campus soap opera Final Exam finally remembers that it's supposed to be a slasher flick and that creepy-looking guy (Timothy L. Raynor) wearing the green army jacket and driving a black van - because, subtlety - who has been stalking the college grounds the entire time starts carving up Courtney's friends and rivals with precision and speed.
Who will live? What will be left of them? Can they slide by with an 82 so their parents will keep on making their car payments? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions....seriously? You answered "yes" to questions that start with "who" and "what" and don't involve Jon Anderson? Are you a former student of Lanier?
Final Exam may have been marketed as another psycho on the loose thriller but it doesn't really become that until the beginning of the third act. The first two acts are strictly devoted to establishing the characters and their various dilemmas, which would be great if any of those things were remotely interesting. If writer-director Jimmy Huston wanted to spend more time on character-driven drama and lukewarm collegiate hi-jinks and less time giving his gore-hungry audience the goods they came for then he should have made them worth the effort. There isn't a single individual among the potential victims line-up of this movie who ever rise about the status of a slasher archetype, with the suitably adequate performances to match. Having to spend the majority of Final Exam watching these colorless kids lacking in identifiable personality traits going about their mundane lives dictated by the demands of the producers can be a tireless chore. Yet Huston manages to keep the proceedings interesting and the pace upbeat by throwing one story idea after another at the audience in the hope that one will eventually blossom into something of use to the narrative.
Most of those ideas, such as the fake school shooting and the unrequited romance hinted in the interactions between Courtney and Radish, are introduced without producing much of a payoff. In the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech, and most recently the University of California's Santa Barbara campus, a massacre of students staged as a fraternity prank for laughs doesn't play as well for sheer entertainment. It could be that Huston was using the fake shooting to foreshadow the brutal killing spree of the third act and hinting that the students' indifference to violence and their willingness to dismiss the entire event without the slightest thought. But if that was the case then the director certainly left it completely up the audience to analyze because he doesn't appear to have much interest in making Final Exam anything more than a sub-standard Dead Teenager Movie (as the genre was memorably coined by the late Roger Ebert).
Judged on its own merits however, Final Exam is not a bad movie. By having its supposedly mysterious killer played by Timothy L. Raynor be a lone psychopath who goes around murdering young people simply because the movie harkens back to a time when silver screen slashers didn't need to be instantly adored horror icons to be effective villains. The psycho that stalks the grounds of Lanier College doesn't bother wearing a cool mask or investing in a badass implement of death that could be turned into a future Ebay collectible. He's just a nut who gets around and is pretty handy with a knife, and that's it. Unlike most famous movie psychos Final Exam's central maniac doesn't have a name or even a face, except in close-up shots that last all of a second and are clustered together in the movie's final minutes. He's a cypher, credited only as "Killer", and the fact that his identity and motives are never once addressed or questioned drains any possible tension or suspense from the story that hadn't already vanished due to the unusual plot structure.
As I mentioned earlier, outside of two horny lovebirds offed in relatively bloodless fashion in the opening sequence no one dies during the first hour of Final Exam. Far be it from me to demand a higher death toll from an 80's slasher flick, but had Huston spread some of the murder sequences through the first two acts it would have helped to create an escalating sense of dread and terror that probably would have made for a more exciting finale and a better film overall. The North Carolina locations (including exteriors filmed at the fabled Earl Owensby Studios in Shelby, where James Cameron's The Abyss was made, among many others) are brightly lit and photographed by cinematographer Darrell Cathcart, whose credits include Al Adamson's oddball kids' movie Carnival Magic and another little-known slasher flick, Death Screams (a.k.a. House of Death, the title it was broadcast as on A&E in the early 90's). The only suspense to be found in Final Exam is in the staging of the death scenes; rather than have the killer stalk his prey through repetitive point-of-view shots and then pop out unexpectedly, Huston had the good sense to utilize brief establishing shots to place both hunter and hunted within the same area and build tension through the chase. Though the killer's weapon of choice is a knife some sequences have him changing his modus operandi, including the scene where he beats the crap out of one victim, then strangles them with gymnasium weights. The blood content in the actual killings wouldn't fill a single Dixie cup, but the suggestive placing of the stage plasma on the killer's knife and on nearby surfaces via off-camera arterial splash keeps the death scenes safely out of PG territory.
Prior to its Blu-ray debut Final Exam had been released on DVD by both Code Red/BCI in 2008 and Scorpion Releasing in 2011. Scorpion's disc featured a high-definition print of the film remastered from its original camera negative that Shout! Factory has wisely retained and upgraded in 1080p for this release. Like the Scorpion DVD the film's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio has been compressed to 1.78:1 but as far as I can tell there is no significant loss of visual information from this alteration. The quality of the print is very clean and lacking in evidence of permanent damage outside of the occasional presence of grain and white specks. The film's original mono sound mix is replicated with decent results on the Blu-ray's sole audio option, a 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Dialogue and music come through both channels with fine clarity and little interference, though the soundtrack is not without its share of noticeable flaws including frequent pops and a rare instance of low hissing. English subtitles have also been included.
The BCI edition of Final Exam, which is now out-of-print, featured several illuminating supplements that were all ported over to the Scream Factory BR, but the Scorpion DVD contained an audio commentary with producer Myron Meisel that failed to make the cut. Returning from BCI's release is an audio commentary with stars Bagdadi, Rice, and Willis-Burch moderated by New Beverly Cinema guest programmer Julia Marchese and CKY frontman Deron Miller. The track was recorded back in early 2008 but hasn't dated much and the recollections from the three lead actors are warm and candid, helped along by the shared enthusiasm from both Marchese and Miller. Also recycled from the previous DVD editions are brief on-camera interviews with Rice (7 minutes), Bagdadi (4 minutes), and Willis-Burch (5 minutes) featuring stories about the making of the film that either overlap or are expanded upon what they discuss on the commentary. The original theatrical trailer is also included. Running about ninety seconds, this redband preview spoils a lot of the best parts of Final Exam and is in pretty rough condition. Best avoid this feature before you watch the actual movie if this is your first time.
Because every vintage slasher flick has to be released on DVD and Blu-ray eventually regardless of their quality or entertainment value, Final Exam now exists in a well-produced, upgraded sliver of HD goodness that fans of the genre will doubtlessly enjoy. I personally found it enjoyable, but without meeting the required quotas of juicy bloodshed and gratuitous nudity this bit of drive-in exploitation really falls behind in the exploitation department. I give Final Exam a marginal passing grade only because it rarely bored me and didn't always look like it was made by rank amateurs. Plus the holdover extra features are nice.