Collins’ Crypt: In Defense Of FINAL EXAM

The 1981 slasher hits Blu-ray today, and BC revisits it.

I couldn't find the exact quote, but in his review of Final Exam (hitting Blu-ray for the first time today thanks to Scream Factory), Gene Siskel dismissed the film, saying that a slasher film could get away with being generic, but not boring. To be fair, this one is a bit slower paced than many others of that golden year of 1981, but it's pretty far from generic if you look carefully. To me, that makes up for its pacing issues, because (especially in the year of its release) you can see a dozen idiots go off alone and get killed without being able to tell them apart - but if there's a damn timer counting down until his demise (and it's not a parody), then you're getting something special.

Much like Wes Craven's My Soul To Take, Final Exam is, on the surface, a pretty generic teen slasher, rather anonymous in the grand scheme of things. You have the pretty heroine, the nerdy guy, the jock (named Wildman), the more promiscuous blonde friend, etc., all being picked off one by one at their underpopulated college during exams week (I guess we're to assume that most of the exams have ended, or everyone is hunkered in their room to study, hence the comical lack of a student body). But when you look a bit closer, you'll see that this is one of the more peculiar entries in the '80s slasher canon; you may never find it particularly scary, but you'll always be entertained with another bizarre line of dialogue or character action.

Take the aforementioned Wildman, for example. Again, on the surface, a fairly generic jock character; the sort of guy who seems to hate everyone he hangs around with and will likely do something terrible to one of the other male characters before he is offed for the audience's benefit. But how many such characters are seen throwing a pencil away as if it was a cursed object, or spraying deodorant over their clothed armpit area before aiming the nozzle into their mouth for good measure? Even his death scene is weird; he is tasked with collecting pills from the gym, and rather than just take the bottles (which would presumably be labeled with what they are - they're looking for something to get high with, but being a gym I'm sure some of those pills are just mild painkillers), he opens them all up and dumps them over a desk, before scooping some of them at random into his pocket. And then he breaks a trophy in half for no reason (being that he's the resident jock, it might be one he helped win), at which point the killer makes his appearance and actually just sort of slaps him around for a while before killing him.

Wildman also takes part in the film's only real action between the obligatory opening scene kill and the first death of a character we've gotten to know, some 50 minutes into the movie. But in keeping with Final Exam's odd approach to things, the scene doesn't involve our killer at all - just a group of terrorists who show up and begin shooting students on the quad. They kill three or four students and then run around collecting the bodies, tossing them into their van and driving off before anyone can call the cops. But it's all a ruse, you see - the entire thing, which involved seemingly real guns, squibs, careful planning, etc, was just a means to distract the chemistry professor so that the other male lead, Mark, can pull out a red pen, mark a couple questions on his test wrong, and write "82" on the top of his exam before hiding it in the teacher's graded pile. See, an 82 is what he needed to pass the class (and he's not greedy!), so enlisting several of his friends to act out this "terrorist attack" - a plot point that would never even be considered today - was easier than just studying, I guess.

And then there's Radish, our geeky hero. If Radish is just a nickname, we're never given his real one (I have ordered the novelization (!) from Amazon, hopefully that will provide some insight), but we don't need a proper name to love this poor dolt. He talks to himself a lot, says weird things (upon seeing a door left ajar, he says - again, to himself - "Hmm, shades of Watergate!"), and like many a dork in a slasher film, pines away for one of the female characters. But in Final Exam world, the object of his affections (our heroine, Courtney) seems to like him back, sitting on a bed with him a bit closely and giving him a compliment - it seems to be leading to a love scene. However, poor Radish misses the signal and hastily makes an exit, telling her to lock her door before walking down the hall a bit and knocking on her OTHER door (yes, their dorm room has two doors), only to blow it yet again.

Of course, a slasher film lives and dies by the quality of its killer, and this is where Final Exam either completely misses the mark or becomes something legendary, depending on your point of view. Our killer is named Killer, I guess - he's never given any sort of identity, motive or backstory. The original Halloween looks Halloween 6-level convoluted in comparison - there isn't even a throwaway line about an escaped mental patient or anything like that. He has no costume, just a green jacket and jeans; his face is obscured for a while but for no real reason since his "identity" isn't a surprise, and after a while they just start showing his face without fanfare. The film's trailer (one of the disc's few extras; it's a surprisingly low-key release from Scream even though it's right in their wheelhouse) actually offers more backstory than the movie itself, as Movie Voice tells us (twice) that "HE CAME BACK!", which suggests that Killer was a former student. Perhaps he failed chemistry and is upset that some of our heroes took part in a way to cheat their way into passing, but since he can teleport (my theory; on the commentary they suggest that there are twin killers) it's possible he's also some sort of science genius that disapproves of their cheating ways. He's certainly not very creative with his kills or body placement - this has to be the only movie where TWO victims are found stuffed into lockers, and apart from Wildman's death by gym equipment, none of them are particularly memorable.

Speaking of Halloween, one thing that tickled me about this film is that it has an almost identical pace/structure. We get the opening kill, and then we're off to school for some daylight action (including a walk 'n' talk with our heroine listening to her friend discuss her sex-driven plans for the evening) before night falls and the killer begins to decimate the cast. The first kill is at the 51 minute mark - the exact time Annie is killed in John Carpenter's classic, and an older male guy runs up the stairs to shoot at the killer during the climax (with different results). Killer even takes a dive at the end and lands in pretty much the exact same pose as Michael Myers after Loomis shoots him out the window. The difference is, Myers uses his time wisely, scaring our heroes and stalking them from windows and such, whereas Killer is pretty much MIA during much of this time, opting for one or two "I thought I saw someone but now he's gone" bits until he finally starts offing them all.

Since the commentary track is populated only by actors (and two moderators, for some reason), Final Exam's production is a bit of a mystery. It was written and directed by Jimmy Huston, who gave us 1987's My Best Friend Is a Vampire, but since he's not around for the disc's extras it's unknown if he was just hired to quickly write a slasher movie to compete with all of the others, or if this was a project that was near and dear to his heart. One previous DVD release had a commentary with one of the producers, but sadly that has not been ported over (all of the extras were on Code Red's standard DVD release from a few years ago), so all of our info about the making of the film is limited to the actors' memories of being hired or shooting this or that scene. I can't even find any information about the film's theatrical release*; Boxofficemojo doesn't have it listed, and IMDb's box office page only has the budget ($60 grand!).

But, in a way, I kind of like that the movie is a bit of a mystery. Nowadays we know everything about a movie before it's even released, and the more famous films from this era (Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, etc) have had their histories detailed fairly comprehensively thanks to retrospective documentaries and the like. Final Exam was part of that group, but since it didn't have a killer anyone could dress up as for Halloween (or a sequel), it's just sort of been left behind. Most of its actors (including Ralph "Wildman" Brown) never appeared in another film, and one of its producers' final credits was working as an assistant on National Lampoon's Vacation (? - possible this is just the IMDb combining two people with the same name). Without it being a "skeleton in the closet" of someone who has gone on to much bigger fame, there isn't much of a reason for anyone to dig deeper and figure out if its strangeness was intentional or just the result of a bunch of amateur filmmakers/actors trying to fit in with their more professional competition. But I don't want to know, really - I just want to say thanks for making not the best slasher of the era (probably not even the best one that MONTH given how many came along that year), but certainly one of the most charmingly odd.

*According to IMDb, the film was theatrically released on June 5th, 1981 - a rather infamous date since that was the day that the very first cases of AIDS were reported. But Final Exam's theatrical release was definitely the second most important thing to happen that day, I'm sure.