Final Exam 1981
FINAL EXAM: HORROR… NOW IN GENERIC FORM
When I refer to Final Exam as generic, I am speaking as a Horror film viewer in 2012. In 1981 when Final Exam was released, the Slasher film explosion was at its peak in popularity. I can not blame film makers of the time period for persuing the dollars that the popularity of Slasher films represented. During this time period many Horror films were identical to Final Exam. This was the “wave”. Yet, watching Final Exam, the film does feel generic. I felt like I had seen everything in the film before only done much better. Think of Black Christmas (1974). Black Christmas was tame in the gore department, similar to Final Exam, but Black Christmas provides a much more compelling and creepy experience. The iconic Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), also lackluster on screen blood spillage but the film feels like every horrific moment is filled with bloodletting when it is near non existent. Go back and watch it again. There is very little blood in the film but it feels like you have been subjected to so much more. This is a testament to Tobe Hooper and crew that the film comes off as subjecting the viewer to more than is really shown. Halloween (1980), the film that refined and cemented the stalk and slash mechanic, was also tame in the gore department. John Carpenter made Halloween special by adding the now well known music to kill by. Also Carpenter tweaked the killer by giving him a back story painting him as destined for evil. All of these elements combined to create an incredible and memorable experience. Finally, I mention Friday the 13th because it stands apart from the other films mentioned because by the time it was released I could make the argument that it was generic. We had seen everything in Friday the 13 before. Friday the 13th borrows from everything that came before. I believe that Friday the 13th is simply an Italian Giallo influenced by the ferocity of Halloween. Putting an American spin on it if you will. What made Friday the 13th special was the focus on the death set pieces created by Tom Savini. When you talk to someone about Friday the 13th, the conversation quickly turns to this kill or that kill because they were memorable and were intended to be so. The story was there to service the inventive bloody moments. The arrow in the throat for example. My point is that everything has been done before so in order to stand out you have to mix in little details that make your film standout. You can focus on atmospherics, a clever spin on a familiar story or villain or you can focus on making the death set pieces memorable. If you focus on neither of these things then what you get is the label generic. This is the category where I felt Final Exam falls.
Final Exam opens as a March College couple gets romantic in a parked car at midnight. Someone taunts them from the darkness. The couple dismisses the stranger in the darkness as one their classmates playing tricks on them. This assumption proves to be fatal as the stranger in the darkness attacks the couple.
The story then moves to another near by college, Lanier College. Its finals time and all the students are taking tests before they leave for the semester break. We are introduced to the demure Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), Mark (John Fallon) the privileged jock who is cheating his way through college, Radish (Joel S. Rice) the serial killer trivia know-it-all and resident nerd and Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch) the girl who can’t be without a boyfriend. We find them on their way to class and talking about how the school is beginning to feel empty as people are leaving for the semester break. Radish asks the group if they heard the news about the couple that was murdered at nearby March College. The group seemingly dismisses the news.
The film then moves to a classroom where students are taking a test. Mark is present as well as Wildman (Ralph Brown), the stereo typical Jock moron and Mark’s fraternity brother. The professor leaves the students to their test and leaves the classroom. The professor is met at his office door by Lisa (DeAnna Robins), an attractive female student. She apparently is trading sexual favors for a passing grade from the married professor. She arranges a rendezvous for later that evening.
All of the key players introduced, there is nothing left to worry about except for the strange dark van that seems to be constantly driving slowly through the campus.
The first thing that struck me about Final Exam was how absolutely awful the dialogue is. The acting is not great for sure but the dialogue given to the actors to recite is bad. This is especially evident in the Wildman and Mark exchanges. Wow! When nothing else distracts from the bad dialogue and performances then they stick out like a sore thumb all the more. What results is a portrait of college life that is juvenile and not in a good Animal House way. Characters are unlikable and come off as pronounced stereotypes. Radish, the nerd carrying around tons of books from class to class. Lisa the attractive female student who uses her sexuality to pass courses because pretty women couldn’t possibly pass courses with out doling out sexual favors. Wildman, the dumb jock that doesn’t care about school (why go to college?). He is just attending college for the homo-erotic male bonding that his fraternity offers. Janet can’t be without a man in her life because she is a weak female that must be in a relationship otherwise she has no identity. There is also a strange exchange between the the sheriff and the coach of the Lanier College football team and the head of campus security. The sheriff, responding to a 911 call that masked men were gunning down students on campus, is treated like a child by the coach and the head of campus security. He is mocked and laughed at. When it is revealed that it was Wildman and his frat brothers that staged the mock murders that forced the 911 call to the sheriff, it is characterized by the coach as boys being boys and the sheriff is told to go worry about real problems. If we did’t know that this film was released in 1981, that would be offensive given Columbine or Virginia Tech. It is strange.
Final Exam takes half of the films run time before the killing starts. That is way to slow for a film like this. The first half of the film is this bizarro version of college life. It is definitely not worth the trouble and adds nothing to creating tension. The second half of the film is much more engaging once the stalking and slashing starts. The second half is better but not great. There is nothing novel about the narrative, there is little to know information given about the killer and there is little to no gore. I say again… generic.
The killer in Final Exam is a complete mystery. Normally in stalk and slash films we are given some kind of information on the killer; the killer saw a loved killed by another killer, the killer was taunted in some traumatizing way (Terror Train (1980)) or the killer is seeking revenge for some percieved injustice (Friday the 13th (1980)). Final Exam gives almost nothing as a motivation for the killing spree. There two explanations that I could glean as a motive for the killings. Radish explains how people just wake up one day and decide to kill when talking to Courtney over a drink in her dorm room. It occurs once so you have to pay attention. The second possible motive explanation comes in a conversation between Courtney and Janet when courtney explains how she does not buy into sorority life because a year ago a girl killed herself because a sorority did not accept her. Maybe the killer is this girl’s father or maybe Radish’s theory of people just waking up one day and deciding to kill is the correct answer. We don’t know. Other than just a passing comment, the killer’s motivation is never expanded upon. Some people may say this is even more creepy but in a movie that desperately needs something to set it apart from the crowd, a little more effort would have been appreciated in this regard.
All of my complaints about terrible dialogue and bad character stereotypes aside, Final Exam is well directed and structured film. There are some nice camera set ups that present moments well, it’s just that the visual set ups never pay off with anything interesting. The basketball court sequence where Wildman gets into trouble is a good example. Also the music in the film is effective and reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween score. Remember I said reminiscent not similar or identical.
Before ending this discussion I have to mention how much Final Exam evokes Scream (1996). Both films take place in schools. Nothing new there. Both films share a character that is knowledgeable about horror films. Radish and Randy, Jamie Kennedy, both act as authorities on rules of horror films and killer mayhem. Radish talks about real life killers but in his room he has posters for The Tool Box Murders (1978) and Corpse Grinders (1971). Randy’s knowledge encompasses all horror films up to 1996 so he is a little more in your face about horror film trivia. Radish has to use serial killer information and horror movie knowledge to gives the viewer the impression that he knows it all. Both characters are used in the same way, to deliver killer mayhem information, but Radish is used in a more subtle way than Randy. This makes me wonder if Final Exam was used as a template for Scream by Kevin Williamson. Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Just wondering.
Final Exam is not a bad film. It just does not have anything that sets it apart from what came before and what came after. It is well directed and well constructed. The gore quotient is woefully low. The killer is absolutely forgettable. The characters in the film are nothing short of obnoxious stereotypes, which is nothing new for slasher films. Like I said, Final Exam is not a bad film. It is just not a good film either. I would recommend it for Horror completests only. Casual Horror film fans may want to look elsewhere for their daily bread.