Final Exam (1981)

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Because we have no set schedule or genre here, our reviews wander a bit. A brief mention from one of my friends can lead to the 13-part “Witchcraft” series, which I regret wholeheartedly, but then something like seeing an actor I like or enjoying a script will send us down the path of watching everything they’ve ever done. This has resulted in me being a Donald Farmer fan, for one (after watching “Vampire Cop”) and today’s review is the result of rather enjoying “Killer Party”. The two movies share an actress, Sherry Willis-Burch, who looks like a slightly nerdy Rene Russo, and amazingly we’ve now covered her entire career. She’s great in both, so I hope she just found a job that paid more money.

This is 1981, so some of the rules around slasher films weren’t clichés yet, and in some cases hadn’t firmed up, so there was a bit of wiggle room. But we start with a classic – a couple of college students in a car, the boy trying to get the girl to have sex with him, but before either of them have any fun they’re butchered by a rather strong person. We then switch to a different college, Lanier, where the bulk of the action is going to take place. It’s final exam week and most of the campus is empty, fortunately for the extras budget.

The “Meet The Meat” section is rather well-handled. You’ve got hard-drinking jock Wildman, Courtey the determined student, Lisa the party girl (who’s sleeping her way to an A), Gary the fraternity pledge and his girlfriend Janet (Willis-Burch), Mark the main sleazy frat guy, and best of all, super-nerd Radish. But the rest of the cast is fun too, with a cool adulterer Professor, an angry local cop and a remarkably calm campus security guard, who’s seen it all before and believes in letting the kids have their fun.

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This fun starts off with staging a mass shooting, so in the chaos the frat guys can switch out their exams. I mean, really? Surely that sort of thing would have got you expelled, even in 1981? But it’s all good here. Aside from this, the first hour is fairly quiet, in the same proportion as “Halloween” but without any of the earlier classic’s artistry and tension. The most fun is watching Wildman (extraordinarily, Ralph Brown’s only credit, he’s really compelling) acting quite convincingly like a lunatic, with a rather homoerotic subtext to the tying of Gary to a tree. While it’s not slow, not a lot happens, if that makes any sense – we’re treated to some excellent character building while not necessarily progressing a great deal.

Okay, the killer. As people start dropping like flies (but with barely any gore, which is a bit of a disappointment), we see a bit more of his face, until near the end he’s front-and-centre in a few shots. And the weird thing is…he isn’t anybody. He’s just some guy who decided to start killing people. He’s given no character, no motivation, no name, he’s not anyone’s parent or kid or jilted lover. It’s fascinating, in an era when movies were trying to create characters that could return in multiple movies, to have such a non-presence in the role. Writer / director Jimmy Huston (who also wrote the Billy Crystal / Gregory Hines classic “Running Scared”, and directed one of my favourites, “My Best Friend Is A Vampire”) wanted a movie that concentrated more on character than chills.

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This is perhaps an admirable desire, but the problem becomes that the character building stuff isn’t all that interesting unless you put the characters in some sort of dramatic situation (like being stalked by a killer). There’s way too many murders happening off-screen, so it’s fair to say it’s like a comedy with not enough laughs, paired with a horror with not enough horrific stuff.

The constant foreshadowing just gets boring after a while, and while it’s nice to see a horror movie with posters for such obscure gems as “The Corpse Grinders” and “The Toolbox Murders” in it (Radish is a fan of the genre, apparently), it ought to have remembered that slasher films with no slashing in them are very rarely fondly remembered. Having a killer who appears to be an afterthought is a really weird choice – and he teleports around with incredible speed, and at one point plucks an arrow fired at him out of mid-air, so…no, I got nothing. What the hell were they going for? Thinking back, a college kid who killed herself because she couldn’t get into a sorority is mentioned briefly once, but not a single link is made between her and him, but that’s the best I can think of.

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What is interesting is seeing, back in the early 80s, how many perfectly fine actors only ever did one or two movies. Aside from Willis-Burch, there’s Wildman, final girl Courtney, Mark and Gary, whose careers go no further than “Final Exam”. None of them are terrible, so perhaps they were just local theatre people who never bothered taking it up as a career? It’s a shame, anyway.

It’s perhaps so unusual that it’s worth watching just to see what early slasher movies could have turned into, but then again…not much happens and the killer is just some guy and the plot is mostly non-existent.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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One thought on “Final Exam (1981)

  1. Pingback: Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 (1987) |

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