Sat 3 Dec 2016
FINAL EXAM. Motion Picture Marketing / Embassy Pictures, 1981. Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, John Fallon. Written and directed by Jimmy Huston.
Odd. Amateurish. Creative. Atmospheric. These are just four ways to describe this low-budget “madman on the campus” thriller. Filmed on location in North Carolina, Final Exam features an extremely effective musical score and a cast replete with first-time actors and relative unknowns. All of them, despite their lack of on screen experience, do an admirable job in making this offbeat slasher film something far more memorable than it truthfully deserves to be.
The plot isn’t particularly difficult to follow. It’s finals week at a small liberal arts college somewhere in the US South and the remaining students on campus are involved in studying and partying. There’s also the jock-filled fraternity that decides it’s a good idea to pull a major prank on campus, one that involves a simulated terrorist attack. This naturally sets up one of the major characters, a nerdy fellow named Radish (Joel Rice) into believing the prank is real, leading him to phone the local sheriff who is less than pleased to learn that the whole thing was a false alarm.
But what happens next is no prank. Soon enough, a knife-wielding madman shows up on campus and begins his senseless murderous rampage. (I say “senseless” not just as a means of describing psychopathic murders, but also because the film controversially provides no motive for the killer. Whether that makes it more effective or less is up to the viewer to decide.) The main characters – from the jock to the blonde girl having an affair with the chemistry professor – come face to face with the lurking evil in their midst.
Typical for the genre, there is a studious, morally upright final girl who (spoiler alert) not only kills the killer, but also survives the ordeal. Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is filled with self-doubt and is insecure about her future. She doesn’t feel as if she has it easy either in terms of looks or marketable skills. But somehow she finds the internal strength to not only keep on living in the midst of the evil that overtakes the campus, but to also defeat it.
I’d be exaggerating if I said that there were any deep philosophical themes explored in Final Exam, a movie that’s far more grindhouse than art house. But there are several thematic elements that merit further exploration, such as the effect of fraternity pranks on college campuses, the psychological insecurity of college students soon to embark on their journey into the “real world,” and the randomness of life itself.
Indeed, Radish is constantly badgering Courtney with seemingly useless observations about how there are psychopaths out there in the world who would do innocent people harm. Taken as a metaphor for the difference between the relative security of a college campus and the dog-eat-dog reality of post-collegiate life, Final Exam deserves a far higher grade than many of the other derivative slasher films that were released in the wake of John Carpenter’s seminal Halloween (1978). And much like Halloween, this film eschews gore and relies more on atmosphere, suspense, and a haunting soundtrack to make an impact on the viewer.