Guy in an army coat with Dutch boy haircut and…um…a van.
During the early years of the slasher boom, after most of the holidays, scary masks, and sporting goods were spoken for, many filmmakers opted for the generic “man on the street” model antagonist; psychopaths who not only didn’t bother dressing up for their killing sprees, but, oftentimes, did so with the flimsiest of motives (and, in some cases, no motive at all).
With 1981’s Final Exam, we are given, perhaps, the least menacing killer to ever grace the screen; a lumbering, vaguely Neanderthal-looking man (played by stunt coordinator, Timothy L. Raynor) sporting the aforementioned army coat and unfortunate hair style, who, for some reason or another, has decided to take out his frustrations on college students along the eastern seaboard. After a protracted intro sequence, in which said killer dispatches a pair of loquacious lovers in a convertible, he sets his sights on a small North Carolina college. It’s here we meet what we know right off the bat will be the film’s chief protagonist, Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi); a prototypical “final girl” right down to her plain-Jane features and fashion sense. Courtney’s inner circle includes true crime buff and resident geek Radish (Joel S. Rice), uber-hot slut, Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), and the gullible Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch). Rounding out the college stereotypes are frat boy douchebags, Wildman (Ralph Brown) and Mark (John Fallon), as well as their overburdened pledge (and Janet’s “love”), Gary (Terry W. Farren).
With just one day left before the summer break, most of the students have gone home, leaving just a handful behind to finish up their final exams, but they’re not alone, as Army Coat Van Guy has made his way down south to their woefully unsecure campus (the sole “guard” is an elderly drunkard armed with a flashlight and a flask). We know he’s arrived because we get numerous over-the-shoulder shots of him driving around stalking each of the above mentioned principals, all accompanied by a cheesy synth rip-off of the Halloween theme. This goes on for about 40 minutes.
Save for the opening sequence, not a drop of blood is spilled in the first half of the film (unless one counts an absurd fraternity “prank” made to look like a terrorist attack that, today, would result in several dead fraternity members), as we are instead given what amounts to a lot of poorly scripted chats, a few mildly amusing comedy bits, and lots and lots of footage of Army Coat Van Guy’s feet, arms, and shoulders as he somehow walks around campus unimpeded. When the carnage finally does break out, it’s exceptionally tame, and, save for one jump-scare that always gets me no matter how many times I’ve seen this damned movie, virtually devoid of any real frights.
Final Exam is one of those guilty pleasure movies that I still find myself going back to despite it being one of the lesser examples of the genre. There’s just something endearing about its goofy implausibility. Take, for example, the obviously gay Rice trying to sell us on his unrequited love for Courtney, or the Raynor’s khaki-clad killer’s ability to seemingly teleport from one location to the next (there’s one scene where he pops up out of a barrel in a janitors’ closet literally moments after his prey has locked him out of the building, making it impossible for him to do so). It’s not just bad casting and lapses in logic that make this one prime for face-palming; writer/director Jimmy Huston’s attempts at humor and characterization are so misguided that it’s at once charming and cringe worthy. I also have to admit that I really quite like the fact that Raynor’s killer isn’t given any sort of motive for doing what it is he does, and that ties in to Radish’s ramblings about how mass murderers often are just people who wake up one day and decide to “snuff” somebody. It lends a nice touch of mystery to the proceedings.
Released back in 2011 on DVD courtesy of boutique distributor, Code Red, Final Exam comes to Blu-ray via Shout! Factory’s horror imprint, Scream Factory, and is presented in a very pleasing new HD master “struck from the original 35mm negative”. Presented in 1.78.1, the transfer starts out a bit rough during the credits sequence, but cleans up quite nicely. This isn’t a transfer that boasts much by way of fine detail, but the image is very crisp and vibrant, and is a nice upgrade over the DVD (which looks pretty damned good in its own right). The mono DTS HD Master Audio track is surprisingly robust, as well, and, with nice separation of dialogue and impressive bass.
Bonus features are carried over from the Code Red release, and include an entertaining and energetic feature commentary moderated by New Beverly Cinema’s Julia Marchese and legendary skate punk band C.K.Y.’s Deron Miller, that includes stars Joel S. Rice, Sherry Willis-Burch, Cecile Bagdadi, as well as short interview segments with each (SD). Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer (HD).
While I’m sure this review may read like I’m trashing Final Exam, it’s only because…well… I am! But I mean it in the most loving way possible, I assure you. This is one of those films I remember staying up way past my bedtime for so I could watch it on The Movie Channel and catch a fleeting glimpse of DeAnna Robbins’ perfect 80s bod. It was a big part of my formative years, and I’ve owned it in every medium it’s been released in, so, while it’s by no means a great (or even good) film, it’s one that’s important to a lot of old slasher fans like myself.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray presentation is excellent as always, and the inclusion of Code Red’s supplements makes this the perfect excuse for fans to upgrade! Recommended!