Final Exam (1981) Review
*** ½ Out of 5
Tagline- Some Pass the Test… God Help the Rest!
Release Date- June 5th, 1981
Running Time- 89-Minutes
Written & Directed By- Jimmy Huston
Starring- Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, Timothy L. Raynor
Released in 1981 Final Exam despite the cult following its gained over the years is also a semi-forgotten movie and many of the reviews for the movie are sub-par. After the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th slasher films were quite the rage in the 80s and 1981 was one of the biggest years with Halloween 2, Friday the 13th Part 2, The Prowler, The Burning and My Bloody Valentine so its not difficult to understand why Final Exam isn’t more remembered. Quite honestly despite the poor reputation Final Exam has and its not without its flaws, but I think its better than its reputation and while this film may not reach the heights of the slasher films I mentioned I liked this one quite a bit and it may not be in my top 10 slasher flicks of the 80s, but to me its sort of the underdog slasher of the 80s.
The main influence on this movie was Halloween and Final Exam isn’t as scary or suspenseful as Halloween nor does it have the grisly gore F/X of the Prowler or the eerie atmosphere of My Bloody Valentine or the creative deaths like Friday the 13th. Final Exam may not have that fun factor many slasher films are known for and sure it doesn’t sound like there is much to this film, but it is a solid effort. I also think this movie stands out a bit as it doesn’t feature very much gore or nudity often featured in slasher films at the time of Final Exam’s release. During its original release and even now some cast the movie a side due to that, but what Final Exam tries to do is focus more on characters and give them a bit more to do than appear and be killed a few minutes after. The opening scene we have two deaths and than it takes until the 54-minute mark before we get another death and like the lack of gore and nudity that also is something that might turn off a lot of slasher fans. But I think all this works in the movies favor for the most part.
After the murder of two college students we shift to the nearby Lanier College as the students are talking final exams the murder shows up and sets his sights on the students of Lanier.
The screenplay by Jimmy Huston tries to avoid the pitfalls many slasher films often have and to a certain degree he manages to do that. The characters are sort of the typical that we often see in slasher films, but they also have a little more depth than we’re used to seeing. The first half of the movie does focus on the characters and while some viewers may find themselves bored with the lack of action I liked how Jimmy Huston wanted to make more of his characters and not simply have them their to add to the body count. Slasher films in general aren’t known for their characters and I suppose Final Exam isn’t all that different, but they do have a little more depth than the slasher films that dominated the 80s.
The script mixes in comedy and drama with students pulling pranks and the dramatic moments might be a little sappy in spots, but it also gives the film a little more depth than the bulk of the slasher films of the era and while this does work, but around the 30-minute mark the script does run out of steam due to the lack of plot. The 2nd half is when the action kicks in and the script becomes the standard stalk and slash screenplay of the 80s, but might work a little better due to the fact the characters are more established, well sort of works better. Overall the screenplay isn’t anything special, but I respect the fact Jimmy Huston wanted more focus on characters rather than faceless victims and while again the characters may not be all that different than we’ve seen in other films they do have a little more going for them.
As director Jimmy Huston delivers a well made movie that as stated avoids focusing on gore and nudity and shifts focus on the characters instead. While as I stated the first 30-minutes the film is entertaining, but it does begin to slow down and the pacing while never in my opinion bad can lag in spots though. After the opening murders we don’t get another one until the 54-minute mark, which will probably bore those looking for a body count film. If not for a few shots of the killer wandering the campus, which were clearly inspired by Halloween, its easy to forget you’re watching a slasher film since the first half plays out like I said more in tune with a comedy/drama.
The 2nd half is when the action kicks in and we get about 9 deaths in the final 30-minutes and while these scenes may lack the energy of other slasher flicks and the suspense and tension aren’t quite as strong as they could be, but since the characters are a bit more established it does help these scenes play out a little bit better than they would have if not for that. Final Exam may not be as suspenseful as other slasher films of the era, but again it does play out well and the final act with the killer chasing after Courtney (Bagdadi) plays out very well since the character is not only likable, but a little deeper than most final girls. Overall I think Jimmy Huston delivers an underrated movie with some decent suspense.
Some complained how the killer doesn’t wear a mask and there are several slasher films with a mask-less killer, but normally we don’t see their faces until the end like Friday the 13th and slashers like Maniac are quite different. We see mostly side shots of the killers face in Final Exam and when we do see his face its either a quick shot, hidden by shadow or something blocking his face. The final act we do see his face clearer and I think people complain because the killer here is modeled after Michael Myers and he’s the typical silent killer and normally they have a mask on. So it is a bit odd to see the silent killer and be able to see his face.
Another thing that draws mixed reaction is we never find out the killers name or motivation for why he’s killing people. I actually quite liked that; it does make it a bit more eerie since its so random. In one scene a character mentions a girl who killed herself because she wasn’t accepted into a sorority. Could that be a reason for the killings? Who knows and while I get why people disliked it, but the random nature of targeting anyone at least to me makes the film a little creepier and also standout from every other slasher flick. If anything I would say this is the Halloween connection again. Remember in the original Michael Myers has no motive other than being insane it wasn’t until the 2nd he has a reason.
At times while watching Final Exam you can see the influence it may have had on Kevin Williamson with Scream 2 and even a little on H20, which Kevin produced and did some uncredited rewrites.
Overall I enjoy Final Exam, but I clearly get why some find it boring; the suspense is decent, but not as strong as it could have been, it takes a while before the action kicks in and their zero gore. While sure it probably could have used a bit more gore, but when all is said and done I love how Jimmy Huston attempts at creating characters and not faceless victims and yeah the film is flawed and again I wouldn’t rate it in my top 10 slasher films of the 80s, but I very much enjoy this one.