If there is one subgenre of horror that encompasses the eighties, it’s the slasher. Slashers were king during this time, with everyone, and anyone trying to jump on the stabby mayhem and glorious nudity bandwagon they provided; sure sellers for very little monetary investment. Teen audiences clamoured to see them in the droves, on the promise they may witness the flash of some boobs- or perhaps more- a chilling unseen killer ripping into bare flesh, or blood-stained corpses; a winning formula it would seem. Despite these low-budget groundings, they can make very effective pieces of horror. Indeed some of the top grossing, most popular genre pieces and franchises are slasher based; Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween– the unholy Trinity and enduring face of mainstream horror today. In 1981, the subgenre was in its infancy, building up steam before it ultimately combusted on itself by over exposure. The ripe pickings of genre classics were seeing their first airing during this period. 1981 was the year that produced films such as The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, Evilspeak, Bloody Birthday, Halloween 2, Graduation Day, The Funhouse, The Prowler, Happy Birthday to Me, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, Madhouse, and Bloody Moon (readers may note there are a considerable number of UK Video nasty classics among that list); then there was Final Exam, a film this reviewer admits to never having heard of before, and after viewing, the reason for this becomes suddenly clear as to why this was overlooked.
One has to ask the question in the climate of slasher heyday why director Jimmy Huston in his own words would want to make a slasher based film that differed in its approach by avoiding graphic violence. A slasher by its very nature is graphic- expectations on viewing one are usually based on the type of kills that will be laid out on the table, and whether thrills will be achieved on that basis. Of course, there is an art and skill to pulling this off successfully, you need a certain amount of atmosphere, an angle for the killer, and the right blend of character development (at least knowing the victim’s names does help in eliciting sympathy) versus stand out murder set pieces. There is nothing deep and meaningful about a slasher, and nor should there be; their value comes from their ability to provide pure unadulterated entertainment, no more no less. Hutson’s decision to spend a good hour developing characters- that you neither care nor feel anything about even after such an extensive section of the plot being dedicated to this- could be considered a huge misstep by some. The Burning takes a similar slow-burning approach, however sets up the scene perfectly by having a strong opening murder in the first act, then ending the character development stage with one of the most outstanding set pieces ever seen in a horror film- the raft scene. Final Exam by contrast does neither, a weak opening, followed by what seems like an endless hour of boring teen drama to get to the weak- off camera- murder, and so it fails miserably. It comes to something when one of the only actual elements of ‘horror film’ and nudity contained come from the film posters on one of the character’s walls- The Corpse Grinders (an especially dire and strung out Ted V Mikels film- that looks like a masterpiece in terror when compared to this film), the Toolbox Murders (an example of a much better slasher) or a pin-up of a nude girl that remains in shot a lot longer than the actual ‘nude’ scene. It also speaks highly of the monotony to be found when a viewer finds an interesting dinner tray POV shot a welcome respite from the rambling teen politics- said shot becomes a ‘clever’ foreshadowing for a split second of tension in the third act. Quite plainly in order to endure the level of bland atmosphere featured in three-quarters of this film the viewer should surely be rewarded by something amazing and memorable in the climatic scenes, yet sadly this fails to occur, and the film remains lukewarm for the entire duration as a result.
Final Exam is not without some merit, it is surprisingly well made for a low-budget piece. Also, the frankly bizarre script is not without some entertainment value. The film wants to be funny and is, but not for the reasons it may have intended. A strong mix of terrible hairstyles, offbeat dialogue, and weird choices in plot development do make for an amusing time- if you can beat through the rest of the guff. As previously mentioned it does lack on violence, a few scenes appear on camera- most notably a jock killed by a weight training machine- but these are hardly outstanding when you compare the killings involved in some of the other pieces coming out around this time. It also fails on the usual dose of T&A- only one naked girl for a split second. For an on campus film there are no girl’s locker room scenes, no gratuitous showers, and certainly no teenagers getting hormonal with each other either. There is an awful lot of focus on a girl being given a fraternity pin, which speaks volumes about the quality of the plot. A highlight moment does come in the form of perhaps the most absurd attempt ever at a red herring ‘prank’ quite early on- no spoilers, but it does give cause for the hilarious line ‘they are here, the psychopaths have arrived’ or something of that nature. The nature of these pranks form the foundation of the plot and as time ticks on this approach starts to become annoying. Having an energetic set piece early on, followed by the realisation it is just added for humorous effect, only succeeds in further compounding the overall feeling of disappointment to be found in Final Exam.
The usual stereotypes assemble; nerdy boy, jock, slutty girl, nerdy girl, yet the potential in these are not exploited to their full extent. Likewise, this film has to provide the most banal killer in the history of the slasher- an inexplicable killer who is just a bloke in a pair of jeans- yes that’s right, no backstory, or gimmick, just some random stranger wandering about with a knife. The cast here are all so one-dimensional it is beyond the will of this reviewer to actually go into detail about them, other than to say although they all play their parts reasonably well for a film of this type, the script makes them uniformly dull. Saying that the Dukes of Hazzard type Sheriff Quentin (Sam Kilman) does provide some hilarity, but sadly his role is limited to a couple of scenes.
It is interesting Scream Factory decided to give this the blu-ray treatment when there are many more titles deserving of this status. The print here is a basic restoration; it does have some crackles and pops and the colours are slightly washed out- although this seems a reflection of the original print. When compared to the DVD release however it is a vast improvement; the DVD in comparison being dark and dull. The detail is clear, and the print keeps its original retro look in texture. The sound comes through clear and well mixed. On the note of the sound, this film does have a score that appears to be a rip off of John Carpenter’s Halloween done on cheaper equipment and played backwards.
All in all, Final Exam fails miserably as a slasher. It lacks the usual thrills to make it standout among some of the classic titles made during this period.The director might have done a lot better had he focused on the ‘prank’ scene early on, and used that as a basis to craft a decent horror story. As it is Final Exam represents a lukewarm entry into the slasher subgenre and one that leaves the viewer with a distinct aftertaste of disappointment. No doubt there are fans of this film and for those who found something to love, where this reviewer did not, this blu-ray upgrade is a huge improvement on the previous DVD release. Perhaps one for existing fans only.