Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Final Exam

Bless BCI for releasing this lesser-known horror flick on DVD, but I can't say it's worth the effort. A step down from the regional action flicks director Jimmy Huston had been making for Earl Owensby's North Carolina-based production company, FINAL EXAM, a Motion Picture Marketing production given a national release by Avco-Embassy in 1981, isn't even average for the low-rent slasher genre. In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with making an R-rated slasher movie with less gore, sex and profanity than some PG films of the period, but it's got to have something extra to make up for a lack of visceral thrills. However, FINAL EXAM, working from Huston's screenplay, lacks any clever twists, tight plotting or even memorable performances that could have turned the film into some sort of classic.

It's the last week of the semester, and while most of Lanier College's student body have left for the holidays, a few guys and gals are sticking around to finish exams. Among them are brainy Final Girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), dumb jock Wildman (Ralph Brown), flirty Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), sweet Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch), horror-obsessed nerd Radish (Joel S. Rice) and BMOC Mark (John Fallon). While all the performances by the relatively inexperienced actors are earnest, they also fail to make much of an impact, and it can be difficult to differentiate the characters from each other.

Only Rice stands out, and that's only because of his miscasting, which asks us to accept this awkward, high-voiced and decidedly effete performer as the romantic lead. Scenes in which he attempts to flirt with Bagdadi's Courtney, while certainly intended to showcase Radish's clumsiness around women, come across as hilariously unbelievable.

At any rate, a bowlcutted killer (Timothy L. Raynor) in blue jeans and an Army jacket is wandering around campus killing people, and that's the extent of the story. Unfortunately, outside of a reasonably effective prologue, Huston holds back the killings, i.e. the only reason anyone is watching this movie, until just about the last 35 minutes. Until then, FINAL EXAM is a series of dumb frat-boy pranks and romantic longings. While Huston likely intended this chatty approach to engender the audience's identification with his characters, so their eventual murders would have more impact, it only makes the viewer impatient, since the actors aren't strong enough to earn our sympathy nor are they given any dramatic backstories.

The killings do eventually arrive and at a fairly decent pace, but, again defying genre conventions, are filmed in a tame fashion. Huston does occasionally show flair with the camera or in establishing a suspenseful moment, but his heart doesn't seem to have been in his work. FINAL EXAM was shot on real college campuses near Owensby's Shelby facility, and the old buildings provide some needed realism, as does Gary Scott's HALLOWEEN-aping score.

BCI has released FINAL EXAM on DVD with a few welcome bells and whistles. I would actually recommend skipping the film and going straight to the audio commentary, which reunites cast members Rice, Bagdadi and Willis-Burch under the helpful tutelage of New Beverly Cinema programmer (and unabashed FINAL EXAM fan) Julia Marchese and her superfluous sidekick, musician Deron Miller, who adds little of interest. Demonstrating how well the entire cast meshed personally on the set in 1980, the three actors have a good time together and provide good memories of the shoot's wheres, whens and whos. A track with Jimmy Huston, who appears to have been in touch with BCI, would have been preferable, but this track suffices. Each actor receives his or her own short interview, so we can see how they look today (let's face it—it's something we fans are always curious about). BCI also provides a trailer for FINAL EXAM and a handful of other exploitation films that either are or are likely going to be DVD releases.

As I said, FINAL EXAM isn't a very good movie, not even for a slasher flick (BCI hasn't done much to spruce up the print or audio tracks either, so it's little better than watching a mint VHS tape). Genre fans may want to check it out anyway, though I think you would receive more pleasure and certainly more value by watching it with the audio commentary.

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