In the world of slasher movies, there are two never-fail scenarios. The first is the killer-in-the-woods, which Cinema Fearité has explored several times over the years with features about Madman, The Burning, The Final Terror, Sleepaway Camp, and Just Before Dawn. The other is the university-kids-being-stalked motif, which we’ve covered with Terror Train and The Prowler. Well, this week, we’re going back to college again with a buried gem from 1981 – Final Exam.
Final Exam begins with a couple of students at March College getting slaughtered by a psychotic murderer while making out in their car. Word of the killings spreads to the kids at nearby Lanier College, who are getting ready to take their final exams. At first, it’s business as usual for the Lanier students, with their fraternity pranks and study groups going on at full speed. But when the madman shows up there and starts killing, the kids have to find a way to save themselves…and still pass their final exams.
There’s not a lot of plot to Final Exam. Writer/director Jimmy Huston (My Best Friend is a Vampire) essentially captures a typical college finals week, with drunken parties and test stealing, then tosses in a psycho killer to mix things up. Final Exam is a fairly low-budget affair, with a cast full of complete unknowns (half of which never worked again) and sparse visual effects. The first half of the movie is a bit slow, presenting itself as more of a Revenge of the Nerds/Animal House type of a college comedy, but once the maniac makes his appearance, it turns into a suspenseful killfest, even if it has a relatively low body count. Final Exam is by no means a horror classic, but it passes – with a solid C-.
Made right at the dawn of the golden age of the slasher movie, Final Exam hits every trope and stereotype of the genre, almost to the point where it seems as if it’s a spoof. The movie’s got oversexed college kids, a serial killer who broods away in the shadows, and, of course, a Final Girl who is forced to deal with the maniac herself. Add in all of the false scares and red herrings, and Final Exam is, essentially, the epitome of an eighties slasher. The identity of the killer is a bit of a cop-out, as he’s just a random psycho-killer as opposed to a previously developed character who is unmasked Scooby Doo-style in the final reel, but the blood still flows freely and the kids still die gruesomely.
For the photography in Final Exam, cinematographer Darrell Cathcart (Wolfman, Death Screams) draws a ton of influence from Dean Cundey’s work on John Carpenter’s Halloween. The effectiveness of the movie’s killer is built upon the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t aspect of the photography, with Cathcart conveniently hiding the foe until just the right spooky moment, then hiding him again once that moment has passed. Most of the time, the killer is seen in the shadows or obscured by heavy backlighting, except for one shot of him from a second-story window that is a direct quote from Halloween. Photographically, Final Exam hits all of the clichés, but there’s a reason why they’re clichés – they work.
Final Exam contains the first musical score from Gary Scott, who would go on to become a prolific television composer, contributing music to seemingly every weekly series from “Freddy’s Nightmares” to ‘Beverly Hills, 90210.” Like many other aspects of the movie, the soundtrack for Final Exam is very reminiscent of the score for Halloween, with heavy synthesizers and haunting pianos that are mixed with just a touch of The Exorcist-style new-age melodic percussion. It’s both repetitive and derivative, but it still gets the job done, and the score to Final Exam is one of the brightest spots in the movie.
College kids are great fodder for psycho killers, so they are the victims in some of the greatest horror films of all time. They’re also the victims in some of the not-as-great ones. You can decide for yourself on which side of the fence that Final Exam falls.