Final Exam Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)
At Lanier College, the semester is almost over. Exam week is coming to a close when some upper classmen play a prank by staging a phony terrorist attack. It’s super funny. But the next moment of excitement at the school won’t be a prank. And it’s something a lot more final than an exam. Students are falling prey to a knife-wielding maniac stalking the school, bent on making sure that for some, school is out…forever! (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam was released right in the middle of the super-stuffed year slasher year of 1981 (June 5th, to be exact). While it certainly isn’t a good movie, it is an interesting one to discuss in the context of the more popular slashers released that same year (or even that same month). The plot is interchangeable with a half-dozen other similar releases, including Herb Freed’s Graduation Day (also 1981), Richard W. Haines’ Splatter University (1984), and especially Stephen Carpenter and Jeffrey Obrow’s The Dorm that Dripped Blood (aka: Pranks, 1982) – 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 devoid of compelling characters or plot devices that it sometimes feels secretly significant.
The most intriguing of these accidentally intriguing things 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, effeminate, and secretly in love with the main female protagonist/Final Girl, Courtney (who dresses almost identically to Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween). Yet, despite being such a unique character who gets 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. Furthermore, 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, 1987) seems bored, but gets some 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 step, he has her cornered, then 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. Or so it seems.
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.
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 reused Odeon Entertainment’s Witchfinder General transfer. This Final Exam disc, along with their same-day release of Eric Weston’s Evilspeak, marked Scream Factory’s first and only partnership with Code Red. Final Exam was previously released on DVD via BCI/Deimos (with help from Code Red), then again through Code Red sister company Scorpion under the Katarina's Nightmare Theater heading. 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 I also 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. 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 colors 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, including:
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).
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