The woods has always been a great setting for a horror movie. Whether the heroes are running from a mutant monster (Prophecy), battling one of God’s creatures (Grizzly), or fleeing from a masked madman (Friday the 13th), the disorientation and secluded surroundings are just as frightening as the antagonist itself in most of these movies. In 1983, at the height of the golden age of the slasher film, a film was released that seemed like just another killer-in-the-woods movie, but was destined to become a cult classic. That movie was The Final Terror.
The Final Terror is the story of a group of junior forest rangers who are asked to go into the woods to clear blocked waterways. Their station leader, Mike (Mark Metcalf from Animal House), decides that, while they’re there, they can bring along their girlfriends and do a little rafting as well. On the way up, Eggar the bus driver (Memento’s Joe Pantoliano) warns the campers that there are forces in the woods they don’t understand, and his point is solidified when they drive past an old mental institution. The group is undeterred and, after clearing a stream, they set up camp for the night. While sitting around the campfire, Boone (Lewis Smith from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) tells a scary story about a crazy woman in the woods and her misfit son, a tale which severely spooks the girls. A couple of the other rangers, Nathaniel (Ernest Harden Jr. from White Men Can’t Jump) and Zorich (The Boy in the Plastic Bubble’s John Friedrich), decide to play a trick on the new guy, Marco (Adrian Zmed from Bachelor Party), by asking him to be a lookout while they conduct some drug business, leaving him in the woods, howling like a wolf. When Marco doesn’t make it back to camp the next morning, everyone goes looking for him. Marco finally does show up, but Mike and his girlfriend Melanie (The Eagle and the Bear’s Cindy Harrell) go missing. The entire group goes searching for them and finds an abandoned cabin in the woods. They also find Mike’s severed head. Freaking out, they steal a raft from the cabin and head downstream, only to be subjected to a Deliverance-style stalking from the shore of the river. They find that they are being hunted by what appears to be a monstrous old lady, the mother from Boone’s tale. The remaining campers have to find their way out of the woods and stop the woman before anymore of them are killed.
In many ways, The Final Terror is a hybrid film. On the surface, it looks like a Friday the 13th rip-off. Because of this fact, it is usually dismissed as a simple slasher film. And it is, but it is also much more. It is a monster movie. It is a man-versus-nature movie. It’s a suspense and mystery movie. The screenplay was written by Ronald Shusett (Alien, Dead & Buried) along with Jon George and Neill D. Hicks (the pair behind Escape 2000 and Don’t Talk to Strangers), and is a well-paced and thought out story, even if it’s a bit predictable. Directed by Andrew Davis (who would go on to make action films like The Fugitive, Under Siege, and Above the Law), The Final Terror does contain many of the tropes of the slasher genre: the campfire exposition, a gratuitous sex scene, kids running through the woods screaming. But it also keeps the threat ambiguous enough to generate some fun mystery along the way.
Like many other eighties slasher films, The Final Terror suffered from an identity crisis; it is known by several different names, most of them just as generic and stale as “The Final Terror.” While in production, the film’s working title was The Creeper. It was also known as Bump in the Night, Campsite Massacre, and The Forest Primeval. Finally, when the film was shown on television, it was rechristened as Carnivore. Perhaps the best name that was given to the film was another working title: Three Blind Mice, after the popular children’s song that is sung while the group is on their way to the campsite. With all of the bad titles given, it’s a wonder that The Final Terror found an audience – but it did, and it remains a cult favorite eighties slasher to this day.
As derivative as it may seem, The Final Terror is a genre favorite. Part of the reason is a handful of truly frightening scenes in the film. For instance, at one point the campers take refuge from the killer in their bus. While they cower inside, the stalker creeps around on the top of the bus, reaching down and smashing windows. It’s the inverse of the monster-under-the-bed archetype, combining urban legend with real fear. The scene is one of the more memorable in the film, and it helps to make The Final Terror a classic.
The special effects in The Final Terror were done by a graduate of the Roger Corman Film School, Ken Myers, who cut his teeth on Corman productions like Humanoids from the Deep and Galaxy of Terror before moving on to work in more mainstream horror movies like Friday the 13th Part III and The Return of the Living Dead. The visuals are typical slasher fare, full of cuts and guts and blood and gore. The unfortunate part about the effects is that they are very difficult to see, as the cinematography (done by Andrew Davis himself) is very dark, particularly during the night scenes, and the viewer can’t see a whole lot of detail. What can be seen, however, is first rate slasher fun.
The Final Terror was shot on location in the California Redwood Forest in 1981. It was finally released in 1983, partially to capitalize on the mild stardom that had been achieved by some of the cast members. Mark Metcalf was already a familiar face from Animal House, but had not yet started parodying himself in Twisted Sister videos. Adrian Zmed would become recognizable from roles in Grease 2 and “T.J. Hooker.” Joe Pantoliano was in Risky Business and Eddie and the Cruisers. Supporting cast members Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah had both become rising starlets as well, appearing in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and Blade Runner, respectively. The cast of The Final Terror contains a list of young Hollywood players early in their careers, right before hitting it big.
The camp killer subgenre of the horror movie is an oversaturated one, but the reason is clear; the setting lends itself to many tense and frightening situations. The oft-overlooked The Final Terror is a fun variation on the theme, and the film deserves its reputation as the unsung hero of slasher movies.