The Film: 3/5
Better known for the notable name players among its cast and crew rather than its originality or audacity, the standard-issue backwoods slasher movie The Final Terror arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory's sci-fi/horror shingle Scream Factory. Shot in 1981 but delayed for a theatrical release until two years later to take advantage of the marquee value afforded by some of its rising young stars, Terror is little more than a frequently engaging curio from a sub-genre of horror that lived and died on its butcher shop gore effects and unrelenting tension. Despite being a product of the post-Friday the 13th landscape of low-budget fright flick production that dominated the first half of the 1980's it has more in common with the likes of The Hills Have Eyes and Just Before Dawn, where people who should really know better venture into the unforgiving domain of a psychopath with mysterious motives and a willingness to execute with extreme prejudice any and all outsiders.
In this case, the full course buffet of potential dead meat is a group of forest rangers and their sexy dates who take off deep into an area unspoiled by modern civilization for some fun and frolic. However, once they reach their destination they are officially smack dab on the hunting grounds of a crazed killer who adores wearing blankets made of grass when they go out to do their stalkin' and slayin'. When the bodies start hitting the floor (or falling from the nearest tree) the rangers suspect that their creepy, irritating bus driver Eggar (Joe Pantoliano) is the culprit. Irregardless they have no choice but to abandon all hope and begin making their way out of the forest of death less their precious appendages end up trophies left to rot in the maniac's kitchen cupboard.
The Final Terror was the second feature film directed by Andrew Davis and the Chicago native used the film's middling notoriety (which I'll get to in a moment) as a springboard to become one of the preeminent masters of high-quality action flicks in the late 80's and early 90's such as Code of Silence (with a career-best Chuck Norris), Steven Seagal's coming out party Above the Law and his biggest hit to date (and most likely until the day he dies) Under Siege, and the Oscar-winning classic The Fugitive. Though the latter film proved to be his career peak, Davis always directed with steely professionalism and a terrific eye for casting the finest actors he could get. This was apparent as far back as The Final Terror, which is far from your typical drive-in slasher movie. It has all of the hallmarks of a classic slasher - opening death sequence, an isolated central location, foreshadowing campfire tales, dead bodies used as decorum, wanton sex and marijuana smoking, and above all, supposedly intelligent folks doing hilariously moronic shit - but it also packs the leisurely pace of a film like Deliverance and some genuine suspense surrounding the identity of the killer and their motivation. An entire act almost passes between kills and turns out to be perfectly fine because the foreboding wilderness and the plight of our outwitted but not outmatched characters is more than adequate to hold our attention until the next sharp object pierces human flesh.
The script is credited to Jon George, Neill Hicks, and Ronald Shusett (with George and Hicks receiving story credit). All three writers have impressive pedigree - together, George and Hicks wrote Brian Trenchard-Smith's brilliantly gonzo Ozploitation masterpiece Turkey Shoot (a.k.a. Escape 2000), while Shusett is perhaps best known for co-writing the original Alien and the 1990 version of Total Recall with Dan O'Bannon, as well as the inferior but still fun King Kong Lives and Freejack. He also co-wrote Above the Law for Davis. The writers consciously try to avoid as many of the pitfalls of conventional horror storytelling inherent in the genre at the time as possible, but with a slim 84-minute running time and too many characters for us to focus on the slower patches of the narrative often feel glacial. Plus by making the male characters tough and capable and the females little more than whimpering piles of useless they strike an uncomfortably sexist tone that only serves to feed into critical preconceptions of slasher flicks.
The cast assembled by Davis does their best to soldier through the lackluster material and make the most of things, with the aforementioned Pantoliano getting high marks for his sweaty, intense hick Eggar - the reddest of herrings. The Final Terror was an early showcase for the talents of Adrian Zmed (T.J. Hooker), Lewis Smith (Southern Comfort), Daryl Hannah (Blade Runner), and Rachel Ward (Against All Odds), and they all do fine work with their limited characterizations. Mark Metcalf (National Lampoon's Animal House), Ernest Harden Jr. (White Men Can't Jump), John Friedrich (The Wanderers), and Akosua Busia (The Color Purple) also acquit themselves well. Davis himself served as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Andreas Davidescu) and manages to convey texture and intensity in his sparse, prowling camera work and preference for natural lighting in crucial scenes. The music score composed by Susan Justin (Forbidden World) is nothing to write home about but at least it finds an appropriate balance between propulsive synth rhythms and haunting piano melodies without going overboard with either.
An opening disclaimer states that a proper restoration for The Final Terror have proved impossible as all of the original film elements had been considered lost. Thus Shout! Factory had to make do by using six difference prints owned by private collectors to create the best looking and most complete composite edit of the movie ever released on video. Long out of print since receiving a VHS release from Vestron Video sometime in the 80's, the film's new transfer was compressed to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio from its original 1.85:1 ratio and the composite cut was remastered in 1080p high-definition. Despite the best efforts of Shout! the picture quality is all over the place from the very beginning. The opening scenes suffer from a high amount of grain and several noticeable instances of print damage. Colors for the daylight scenes are even murkier than those for the nighttime scenes. Fortunately things start to improve towards the end of the first act, with grain being reduced and details becoming clearer and more pronounced. The disc's sole audio option is an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track. It's a solid yet undemanding track that allows all of the elements of the sound mix to come through with fine clarity, though the music is often set at a higher volume than anything else causing frequent distortion if you're viewing the film on a standard television set-up. The audio also contains some evidence of soundtrack deterioration including several pops and cracks, but they are infrequent and rarely linger. English subtitles are also included.
Andrew Davis' audio commentary is about as exciting as drinking a bottle of Nyquil and watching the Golf Channel. Too many lengthy stretches of dead air and not enough interesting factoids shared to hold your interest. Skip it. Much better are the two newly-produced retrospective featurettes. First, "Post Terror: Finishing The Final Terror" (23 minutes) speaks with composer Justin and executive in charge of post-production Allan Holzman about the rigorous and complicated completion phase the film went through prior to its delay and eventual release. Then we have "The First Terror" (16 minutes), a fond discussion with stars Zmed and Smith, both animated speakers with much to share regarding their time working on The Final Terror. Rounding things off are a gallery of behind-the-scenes stills and the original theatrical trailer. A DVD copy containing a standard-definition anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film in Dolby Digital mono audio with the accompanying supplements has also been included.
Far from being a shining example of the slasher genre's high water mark, The Final Terror holds its own amidst its gorier competition with a top-notch cast of talented casts, some sharp and suspenseful direction from Andrew Davis, and a pace that only occasionally plods. For the undiscerning horror fans out there Scream Factory's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack might warrant a cut-rate purchase.