There are a few slashers out there that have achieved cult status but fully deserve to be real clascs up there with the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The House on Sorority Row, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and Madman are all examples of this. Each film is scary, suspenseful, and make for a really fun movie night. Final Exam is another example of this kind of movie. Released during the torrent of slashers in 1981, it was panned upon release by critics and fans alike (more on that later), but over the years, it developed a cult following and was highly requested on DVD. Needless to say, when it was eventually released on disc, it sold out pretty quickly. Thankfully, Scorpion Releang has re-released the disc as part of their Katarina's Nightmare Theater with new bonus features and a better transfer. But is the disc all it's cracked up to be? Let's find out.
Final Exam 1981 DVD Review
Description from back cover: At Lanier College, the semester is almost over. Exam week is coming to a close when some upper classmen play a prank by staging a phony terrorist attack. But the next excitement in the school won't be a prank. It's something a lot more final than an exam. Students are falling prey to a knife-wielding maniac hell bent on making sure that school is out...forever! Now watch the slasher clasc in an all new HiDef master from the original camera negatives! FINAL EXAM is back, with a vengeance
The biggest complaint most people have with Final Exam is that it takes about an hour for the killings to start (not counting the death of two love-making teens in the beginning). We see the killer's black van driving around the campus like an unholy shark and we see said killer standing in the distance, much akin to that of Michael Myers. The remainder of that hour comprises of college shenanigans that you might find in something like Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds. But to me, I really like that we spend an hour on it. This gives the audience time to connect with the characters and really make them realistic, instead of the typical cast of cardboard cutouts waiting to get bumped off. Two of the characters are bona fide assholes (Mark and Wildman), but you can't have a good slasher movie without those kinds of characters. The rest of the characters are likable, especially a nerdy serial killer expert named Radish. While the typical serial killer expert in a movie is a really creepy outcast, Radish is actually a really amiable guy and I was cheering him on when he got whiff of the killings and decided to warn everybody. Even the coach character, who's usually a jerk in most of these movies, is likable. The acting in the film is just as great as the character development, and I can seriously only pinpoint one actress who wasn't that great, and she wasn't even a main character (thankfully).
Yet another complaint by most people is that the killer has no known back story, motive, or even identity. To me, that makes him even scarier than, say, Michael Myers. The sequels, while enjoyable, ruined that sense of mystery surrounding him in the first movie, so whenever I watch Halloween, I can never get it out of my mind that Jamie Lee Curtis is his ster. The killer in Final Exam is just some guy (with a bad haircut) who one day decided to start killing college kids, and to me, that is really frightening. The scares in Final Exam are top-notch, and houses some really creepy moments. There's some really suspenseful moments where the film utilizes the old "bomb-under-the-table" gag to frightening extents. We know the killer is in the dorm, but we don't know where. He could be behind the door, around that corner, behind the tree, etc. The fact that he kills people really brutally with your standard butcher knife adds to the suspense, and because some of the characters are so likable. The movie also manages to capture the creepy feeling of being alone on a college campus at night. It's creepy enough when character just walk across campus, but one character happens to be tied to a tree. Another complaint is that the film is almost completely devoid of blood and gore, but we do see the killer bringing the knife down on his victims accompanied by some realistic and painful-sounding audio effects.
Final Exam is one of the scariest and suspenseful slashers of the '80s. It's not all scares, though, but some really entertaining moments in the first hour, which include a huge WTF moment when terrorists arrive in a van and start shooting up some teens on campus. Of course, it all turns out to be a big prank and a scheme to distract the teachers so Mark can grade his own exam when they aren't looking and give himself a pasng grade. There's also a subplot that appears and disappears really quickly about a professor shagging one of his students that is completely forgotten in the rest of the movie. The characters are all fun and interesting, and even the assholes were enjoyable, especially Wildman, who's a completely insane jock. The killer is unsettling and frightening because of how normal he looks, how powerful he is (he beats the crap out of one person before strangling him), and how violently he butchers people (all with little blood shown, which leaves the gruesome results up to your imagination). Final Exam isn't the greatest slasher of the '80s, but it's definitely in my (at least) top 20.
The Verdict: Final Exam is a fun and scary slow-burn slasher flick that deserves more attention than it typically gets.
TRANSFER & AUDIO:
I neglected to pick up the previous BCI release of the film, but two complaints I heard about it were that the audio was pretty bad and the picture was only okay. I'm glad Scorpion Releang hasn't just rehashed the same DVD in an attempt to make a quick buck at the fans' expense. The transfer is really good, with vibrant colors and little grain (there was a lot of grain as the film started, but it either cleared up as the film progressed or I just got used to it). I've seen picture comparisons between the two DVDs, and this new edition is way better (transfer-wise). Everything is really cleaned up, from the little amount of pixels when it's pitch black to
how the colors pop off the screen in the rest of the sequences. All in all, this is a great transfer that tops the previous one by a mile.
The audio is also really clear with no hisng, popping, drop-outs, or anything else that would annoy be during the course of the movie. The sound level doesn't increase or decrease (the sound effects aren't louder in one scene than in another), so I wasn't reaching for the volume control to turn it down or turn it up if the audio got too quiet.
Watch in Katarina's Nightmare Theater Format: Bacally an Elvira-type set-up with Katarina Leigh Waters providing some information on Final Exam. Fortunately, it's not too annoying and I appreciate it that they give some background info on the film, such as the making-of and reception.She's no Elvira, but she does a good enough job.
Audio Commentary: The film's producer, Myron Meisel, gives inght on the film, with moderation by Katarina. The commentary gives a lot of information, but it's misng the entertainment value of, say, the commentary for Evil Dead 2. Still, it's worth listening to for the amount of information it contains (the film was intended to be R-rated, but be a really soft R, which is why there's little blood or boobs).
On Camera Interviews with Members of the Cast: They interview Cecile Bagdadi (Courtney, the final girl), Joel Rice (Radish, the nerd), and Sherry Willis-Burch (Lisa, the beautiful babe). They ask them essentially the same questions about working on the movie, but most of their responses are different. Still, it's entertaining to see them thirty years after the making of the movie and hear their reflections on making it.
Original Trailer: Just what you think it is. It;s also pretty funny that they're trying to trick people into thinking it's related to Halloween by proclaiming, "HE'S come back!"
While on the outde it appears that Final Exam is just another dud in the slasher cannon, it's actually a whole lot more. It doesn't have the "boo" scares that most films nowadays rely on and goes for the slow-burn creepiness that works better than some craptastic jump-fest like Paranormal Activity 3. This goes for that fear we've all felt when we're alone outde at night and we hear a noise behind us. Young audience-goers today won't entirely "get" it, and will probably chastise it for being too slow and nothing is answered in the end. But you know what? That's life. I believe someone has said something along the lines of, "Not everything in real life is explained, so why should it be different in the movies?" My point exactly. It's fun and scary, just like a good popcorn horror flick should be. The DVD is fantastic as well, and I only have a one complaints: I wish they had carried over the audio commentary from the previous BCI release, because I don't want to buy an inferior DVD just for another audio commentary. Still, if you already own the BCI release and really like the movie, it is definitely worth the upgrade. Great picture, great sound, and a good amount of extras make this a must-buy for fans of the movie or any slasher aficionado who has yet to view it. Now I want to buy their release of Humongous in hopes that release is just as good. Highly recommended.
Don't trust my judgment? Here's four other opinions: