Final Exam Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by Jimmy Huston
1981, Region A, 90 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on May 13th, 2014
Cecile Bagdadi as Courtney
Joel S. Rice as Radish
Sherry Willis-Burch as Janet
John Fallon as Mark
Ralph Brown as Wildman
Terry Farren as Gary
Timothy Raynor as Killer
Lanier University is in the middle of final exam week and things are getting crazy. The faculty is sleeping with students, the frat guys are busy stealing tests and pills, adults in any position of authority are worthless chumps and, perhaps best of all, a homicidal maniac is on the loose! Hooray! Despite the endless ramblings of our reluctant hero Radish, an effeminate goon obsessed with death, nobody else is concerned that two students at a nearby college were murdered the other night. Radish (Joel S. Rice) is also the only kid thoughtful enough to call the police when masked gunmen exit a van on campus and shoot up the quad. He is the subject of ridicule when the attack turns out to be a harmless prank. Silly boy, school shootings are an obvious source of humor, right?
Poor unpopular Radish is also lovesick for his friend Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), but her energy is focused entirely on her studies. The rest of the guys on campus are apparently all members of the Gamma House (“Tests or pills?”) and their shenanigans pad the running time despite never being truly entertaining. Mark (John Fallon) and Wildman (Ralph Brown) are having way too much fun hazing Gary, the pledge, (Terry Farren) when they discover he has given his fraternity pin to his girlfriend Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, Killer Party).What follows is an extended sequence featuring Gary tied to a tree, stripped to his underwear and covered in shaving cream. There is a fair amount of homoerotic behavior among the lads on campus, but sadly it never builds to anything beyond general humiliation.
The promised psychopath arrives on campus and wastes a lot of time hanging out in the shadows before he finally gets around to the relatively bloodless killing spree. While this is technically a spoiler, I have no problem revealing that the killer is actor Timothy Raynor. Never seen him before or since and viewers will learn nothing about him during his limited screen time. No character name, no motivation, no clever disguise, no dialogue...just a random schlub with a knife. There is some confusion about the killer – which is addressed in the commentary – and the possibility that it may actually be two people committing the crimes, but I believe this is the result of poor editing and that a murder sequence may be shuffled into the wrong place, so it appears that Raynor is in two locations at once.
The slasher film was in full swing from 1980-1984, and no school function was safe. The university setting and emphasis on character development over violence allowed Final Exam to stand out a bit, although the marketing department presented the film exactly like every other entry in the subgenre. Writer/ director Jimmy Huston (My Best Friend is a Vampire) opted to keep his horror exercise grounded in reality, but neglected to keep the setup interesting. Despite focusing an hour of the picture on believable relationships, some secondary characters are never given names or are simply forgotten about. For example, one would think the sheriff would return at some point, even if he thinks Radish is simply crying wolf. It's almost as if Huston wanted to improve upon John Carpenter's Halloween but attempted to do so without key ingredients like a quality script and talented cast.
When the shroud of mystery that surrounds an iconic villain is lifted and every aspect of what motivates his behavior is exposed (like Rob Zombie's Halloween or the Black Christmas remake), the results can be devastating. Removing the mask of anonymity also erases an element of fear (Hannibal Rising). In the case where the murders are committed in response to a perceived slight, a brief acknowledgment usually will suffice in terms of general motivation (e.g., “He always warned those kids to stay off his lawn.”) Some would also argue that the audience shouldn't learn anything ahead of the characters and that random acts of violence are the most terrifying. I tend to agree, but in the case of Final Exam, the lack of effort to identify the killer or draw any connection to his victims feels more lazy than artistic. Jimmy (son of legendary director John) Huston has a few good ideas here, but lacks the skill to make them even remotely effective. Serious genre fans already know not to go out of their way for this title, but audiences looking to scare their younger siblings might find this a worthy selection.
Video and Audio:
Presented here in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the picture is in surprisingly good shape for a low-budget film few people have demanded be well-preserved or restored. Black levels are solid and colors are strong while flesh tones remain natural. Contrast levels are a bit wobbly from one shot to the next during the final act, but not a dealbreaker, as this is likely the best this film is ever going to look.
The default English Mono DTS-HD mix is limited by the source materials, but serviceable for this release. Dialogue remains clear and free from distortion, yet sounds a bit thin at times. English subtitles are offered for anyone in need.
Starting things off is a commentary track with cast members Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice and Sherry Willis-Burch, moderated by super-fans Julia Marchese and Darren Miller. The track first appeared on the Code Red DVD release from 2012 and is lively and entertaining. All of the participants sound like they are having a good time, but there are a few moments where people excitedly talk over each other.
A collection of interviews (also returning from the DVD) with cast members Cecile Bagdadi (4 minutes), Joel S. Rice (7 minutes) and Sherry Willis-Burch (5 minutes) are informative but poorly presented. These Q & A bits would be better served if edited together into one featurette instead of using cutaway title cards with the same set of questions for each actor to answer.
Rounding things out is the original (spoiler-filled) theatrical trailer.
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