1981’s deluge of slashers yielded better genre representatives than Final Exam, but few are as delightfully odd as Jimmy Huston’s shoestring effort, a little hayseed production put on by folks with little to no moviemaking experience otherwise. It’s a tale as old as the exploitation circuit, a platform that gave rise to various regional voices and flavors. Shot on location across the Carolinas, Final Exam carries a distinctive (and all-too-familiar for this reviewer) southern drawl, making it the good old boy of 80s college slashers and the rare splatter film that delivers in spite of its relative dryness.
Huston adheres to the formula well enough at the outset with a prologue featuring on an ill-fated lover’s lane encounter near a college. When word spreads to nearby Lanier University, it’s met with great intrigue by the student body, some of whom even take a weird, perverse delight in the news, which is the first clue that Final Exam is going to be odd as all hell. More clues continue in the form of increasingly weird characters and the film’s apparent reluctance to deliver anything expected of a slasher movie. Instead, it feels much more like a regular old college movie that happens to eventually feature a maniac looking to carve up what’s left of the student body during finals week.
Fraternity pranks, hazing rituals, relationship concerns, exam anxiety, shitty cafeteria food, an eerily desolate campus—Final Exam has all the trappings of a college comedy and captures the feel of those sort of films better than most of its contemporaries (much like The Burning is the quintessential camp slasher—it’s Meatballs with bloodshed). Whenever I consider 80s college slashers, I’m always tempted to declare Final Exam the best of the bunch for this reason—and then I remember that it features a goddamn prank terrorist attack where a bunch of masked men open fire on campus and start mowing down students. If the boys of Gamma Delta tried to pull that shit today, I imagine they’d be tossed into Guantanamo Bay or something; here, they’re just hailed as clever ruffians who go to absurd lengths to cheat on a test. But what else do you expect from a film that also makes glib references to the Texas Tower shootings just a few moments earlier?
Proclaiming Final Exam to be the quintessential college slasher is also difficult because it commits just about every one of the genre’s cardinal sins: there’s no murder for nearly an hour after the prologue, and the eventual fits of violence are relatively bloodless and uninventive compared to many of its classmates. The killer (played with maximum anonymity by Timothy Raynor) is a nondescript guy whose defining characteristics are his van and army fatigues, and Huston doesn’t even bother to provide an identity (either that, or the guy’s name is actually Killer, which means he's just living up to his billing) or motivation, so it’s not like Final Exam can even boast a unique, memorable slasher, as it just quits shortly after the psycho’s encounter with the final girl. You’d probably give this movie a “C” for effort at best because it feels like it’s just hastily copying its contemporaries’ homework (but, to its credit, just about everyone else was also banging on a bargain basement Casio in order to ape Carpenter’s minimalist synth work on Halloween, so it’s not alone in this respect).
And yet, Final Exam is somehow more memorable than many of those films, partially due to Huston’s willingness to also favor Carpenter’s slow-burn, atmospheric approach over filming an unrelenting bloodbath. Obviously, no one’s going to mistake Final Exam for Halloween itself, but when Huston is interested in actually crafting horror (mostly during the last 30 minutes), he finds some eerie little dark-lit corners on this desolate campus. Save for the lack of gore, Final Exam just looks and feels like a campus slasher should, as most of the action is bathed in moonlight and scored by crickets.
The rest of the film’s distinctiveness derives from it’s totally strange roster of characters and quirks. I don’t know if you’ll find a stranger set than this bunch: you’ve got a teacher who thwarts would-be cheaters by threatening them with a supposedly well-perched sniper (and you can’t really be sure he’s joking, all things considered), a co-ed that has become his mistress and keeps his picture at her bedside, a hapless but likeable nerd, a poor, love-struck frat pledge, and, of course, a group of party animals headed by a guy who calls himself Wildman (and features his name on the front of his jersey as proof).
Most of the authority figures seem like genuine bumpkins, such as the irritable sheriff, the goofball, drunk security guard/janitor (whose shitload of keys is a hilarious gag), and the rascally old coach who of course overlooks all of the antics because he just wants to go bow-huntin’. Just about everyone involved made their debuts in Final Exam, which also doubles as the breadth of their filmographies, and, considering my proximity to many of the locations used for the film, many of them feel like authentic southern folk.
Because it actually has characters, Final Exam can be said to also have flavor, which is bolstered by Huston’s eccentric little flourishes, like the random tale of a dead sorority pledge, the use of a bow-and-arrow against the killer, or the weirdly genuine romance budding between the aforementioned nerd and a sweet-natured girl. There’s a real handcrafted, personal quality to the peculiarity that faintly echoes Sam Raimi (at one point, Huston mounts his camera to a cafeteria tray conveyer belt for no good reason, which is something I think Raimi might enjoy).
I love slashers for various reasons, but Final Exam is one of the few I adore for its accomplishments outside of the slashing arena—it’s just a quirky, lovable little yokel, much like fellow Carolina splatter classic The Mutilator. Along with Student Bodies, it's the class clown from the vaunted Class of ’81; that it makes any impression at all amongst such company is an impressive feat, sort of like the class cut-up scoring a miraculous B- just to skate by.
Originally released to DVD by Code Red six years ago (!), Final Exam has seemingly found its place as a cult classic, at least if its various re-releases are any indication. Scorpion gave it a DVD re-issue in 2011, and Scream Factory is set to matriculate it to Blu-ray with another sharp release. Considering the film’s age and budget, Final Exam makes a rather sparkling high-definition debut with a noticeably improved transfer and a solid DTS-HD mono track.
Scream has ported over most of the extras from previous releases, including an audio commentary with cast members Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch, plus brief interviews with that trio. A theatrical trailer rounds out the extras, so Scream’s offerings here aren’t as robust as other Collector’s Edition efforts, but it’s a solid addition to their library and one that should further cement Final Exam’s place as With-Honors graduate from a strong class.
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