Final Exam (US - BD RA)
Gabe briefly explores the history of the slasher flicks of the year 1981...
It is a long-held truth that the early 1980s were the ‘golden era’ of the North American slasher boom. Following genre-defining body count movies, like Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (both 1974), and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th brought about major studio interest and kicked off a firestorm of similar productions that peaked the very next year, 1981. From January to December, there were at least twenty genre pictures released in American theaters, each with their own radio, TV, and print campaigns. The early summer was especially chock full of genre product (every weekend from April 29th to May 15th, a different slasher film was released in major theater chains). This expansive list includes George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (released February 11th), Ken Wiederhorn’s Eyes of a Stranger (March 27th), Joseph Zito’s The Prowler (April 29th), Tony Maylam’s The Burning (May 8th), J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me (May 15th), Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn (October 14th), and the first two genre sequels, Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th Part 2 (May 1st) and Rick Rosenthal’s Halloween II (October 30th). 1981 also saw the release of the first slasher spoof, Mickey Rose’s Student Bodies (August 7th) and a handful of foreign market versions of the formula, like Jesus Franco’s Bloody Moon, (March 27th), Joe D’Amato’s Absurd (aka: Horrible and Anthropopagus 2, October 8th), and Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Madhouse aka: There Was a Little Girl and And She Was Bad, November 13th).
Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam was released right in the middle of the super-stuffed year (June 5th). It is not a good movie (at all), but it is an interesting movie to talk about in the context of more popular slashers, as well as the current cultural climate (more on that in a bit). The plot is interchangeable with a half-dozen other period releases, including Herb Freed’s Graduation Day, Richard W. Haines’ Splatter University, and especially Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow’s The Dorm that Dripped Blood (aka: Pranks) – a bloodier, grittier, and memorable (but not really better) movie that also revolves around college coeds pulling cruel pranks on each other. Of course, like most quickie slashers, this one was made to fill a slot in the summer schedule, not to tell a compelling story. Final Exam is so utterly void of compelling characters or plot devices that it feels secretly significant. All of these things are merely the generic filler between murder set-pieces and, when a production runs on a budget as small as Final Exam, the filler tends to outweigh the murder, making for a generally boring experience.
The most intriguing of these accidentally fascinating elements is a character named Radish (Joel S. Rice) who should, according to generic slasher movie logic, turn out to be the killer. He’s nerdy, generally disliked by his peers, obsessed with serial killers, extremely effeminate, and secretly in love with the main female protagonist/aka: Final Girl, Courtney (who dresses just like Jamie Lee Curtis did in Halloween). Despite all of these ‘clues’ and plenty of screen time, Radish’s death is as incidental as any other – a development that encapsulates the surreal pointlessness of Final Exam. The fact that he isn’t the killer should mean something, but it’s just another thing that happens on the way to the climax in this deceptively tone-deaf movie. (in an alternate, more interesting universe, Radish would be implicitly gay and replace the Final Girl). Radish isn’t even treated as a suspect; in fact, despite ripping off almost every other vital component of the ‘80s slasher formula, Huston practically forgoes red herrings altogether, aside from ‘gotcha’ gags where non-killer characters startle each other. The actual killer (whose face is pretty plainly seen during the first murder) has no identity or tragic back-story. One would assume that the brutal pranks and frat/sorority house politics that make up about 90% of the screen time would be leading up to some revenge plot, but, nope – he’s just a killer with no name, boot-cut jeans, and a dopey pageboy haircut (pre- No Country for Old Men).
For his part as director, Huston (whose follow-up was a studio-produced, family-friendly horror comedy, My Best Friend is a Vampire) seems bored, but gets decent mileage out of the vacant university locations (the killer’s trip down a dumbwaiter is almost inspired). The horror scenes, most of which appear during the final 25 minutes, tend to start off on the right foot, but Huston doesn’t know when to stop drawing out suspense and has little interest in depicting the kind of graphic violence one expects from a genre feature. The best sampling of his weird self-sabotage is the climax, where potentially suspenseful moments are undone by random events. The Final Girl is chased up a spiral staircase by the Killer in the classic gothic tradition. After we watch them toddle up what feels like every single goddamn step, he has her cornered – but wait, a Good Samaritan (the football coach) appears out of nowhere with a bow and arrow. The Samaritan’s threat is quickly undercut when the killer catches his arrow mid-air and buries it in the Samaritan’s chest. Courtney appears doomed yet again until the Killer gets his foot stuck in some dry rot, allowing her the time to beat him with a plank of wood until he falls over the railing to his ‘death.’
The most shocking scene in the film follows several minutes of listless dialogue, when a black van pulls up to the college and ski-masked men jump out, brandishing assault rifles. They open fire, seemingly killing some students while kidnapping others. It’s a jarring departure and, of course, brings about uncomfortable comparisons to a number of post-Columbine mass shootings. Perhaps more shocking is how quickly the horror is diffused, when two girls notice that the van belongs to the local goofball fraternity and the whole event turns out to be a prank. The authorities arrive and chide Radish for calling them. By the next scene, the attack is all but forgotten. The event is irrelevant outside of establishing how cruel the frat boys are and how apathetic everyone else is. This callous disregard for human suffering permeates throughout the entire film. When news of the first murder makes it to campus, the initial reaction is to argue about the definition of ‘mass murder.’ Later, a teacher (who is having affairs with students) jokes that he has a sniper waiting in a bell tower, prompting Radish to wax nostalgic about Charles Whitman’s bell tower massacre. The nightmare of this universe isn’t that a killer is stabbing students with a butcher knife – it’s that the people he’s stabbing are less likable than he is.
Note that the following paragraph alone has been copied from my Evilspeak review, because the two releases have overlapping technical information
As you may know, Shout/Scream Factory splits its Blu-ray releases between in-house restorations and transfers acquired from the companies they lease the titles from. In many cases, these outsourced transfers are supplied by major studios, but there are some instances of smaller company input, like when they re-used Odeon Entertainment’s Witchfinder General transfer. This Final Exam disc, along with their same-day release of Eric Weston’s Evilspeak, marks Scream Factory’s first partnership with Bill Olsen’s Code Red. Code Red is about as small as distribution companies come, but they have access to a great number of exciting cult and horror titles, many of which they treat with the utmost care. To date, they have released only two Blu-rays – Jeff Lieberman's Just Before Dawn (which looks jaw-droppingly good) and Lucio Fulci’s Voices From Beyond. Both discs were limited editions and available only directly from the Code Red website. Scream Factory has the deep pockets required to cover Blu-ray authoring costs, so, hopefully, this (these) collaboration(s) will either continue or at least help Code Red finance future projects.
Final Exam was previously released on DVD via BCI/Deimos (with help from Code Red), then again through Scorpion Releasing under the ‘Katarina's Nightmare Theater’ heading (probably without help from Code Red). The Scorpion disc was mastered in HD and a significant upgrade. This 1.78:1, 1080p transfer is labeled as ‘new’ and was reportedly mastered from the original camera negative. I’m unable to compare it to the Scorpion or BCI discs, but can’t imagine it wouldn’t come out on top. There are hints of print damage, like dirt, scratches, and a bit of frame wiggle between reels, but nothing unexpected or worth complaining about. Grain levels are consistent without thickening a bunch during the darker sequences and that’s no mean feat, given Darrell Catchart’s murky nighttime photography. Details and fine textures are surprisingly life-like for a 33-year-old cult release, but it is the sharpness of the deep-set element edges that really impress (all without any notable halo effects). Contrast levels are punchy, leading to what some viewers might consider as crushed black levels, but the gradations look natural to me. The colours are pretty incredible, too, not to mention that the palette is pretty eclectic for a not particularly well-made B-flick. The lush natural greens, pure blues, and poppy reds really impress.
Unlike Evilspeak, no one has ever taken the time to remix Final Exam into stereo or 5.1. Every release, including this one, has included an original mono transfer, though none of them have ever had an uncompressed, DTS-HD Master Audio track. The 2.0 mono track has some nice depth, revealing that, despite the underwhelming filmmaking practices, Final Exam had a half-decent mix. The basic sound is as thin and dry as expected, but plenty of scenes feature a few layers of environmental ambience, like noisy crickets, chirping birds, and the general buzz of campus life. The dialogue track is mostly clean, insofar as you can understand what the characters are saying, but there are also continuing issues with hiss on aspirated consonants and inconsistencies with volume levels (possibly due to ADR processes). Composer Gary S. Scott’s soundtrack is another of the film’s high points. It’s not the most original or indelible score, but it has twice the production value of similar tracks. Warmly represented piano motifs are accentuated with intense analogue keyboards (often standing in for a string quartet) and light percussion.
The extras here match the BCI/Deimos release’s and include:
- Audio commentary with cast members Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch, moderated by New Beverly Cinema’s Julia Marchese – This is a perfectly pleasant track with perfectly pleasant people that are appropriately prompted by Marchese, who has prepared a nice list of questions for the actors. The perspectives and anecdotes are all pretty great, but I couldn’t help lament the absence of Huston himself. I have so many burning questions about his thought process that will forever be unanswered.
- Interviews with the same three cast members, who repeat a lot of information already shared on the commentary track – Joel Rice (6:50, SD), Cecile Bagdadi (3:40, SD), and Sherry Willis-Burch (5:00, SD).
- Theatrical trailer
There are at least three dozen obscure and forgotten horror films I’d rather have on Blu-ray than Final Exam, but, watching it again, I can’t dismiss its cult following, either. It’s a really strange, occasionally fascinating failure, which is a lot more than you can say about many of 1981’s slasher releases. Fans have a lot to look forward to with Scream Factory’s release. The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack is a tiny bit problematic and the extras have been carried over from a previous release, but these minor issues pale in comparison to the value of a gorgeous new transfer that rivals major studio releases, courtesy of Code Red.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 14th May 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English
Extras: Cast Commentary, Cast Interviews, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jimmy Huston
Cast: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, Ralph Brown, John Fallon
Length: 89 minutes
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