By 1981, slasher films were at their peak – in volume if not in quality. The box office success of the low budget Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) guaranteed several years of imitators aimed at teenagers, the public’s moral outrage be damned. Final Exam (1981) is pretty typical of the quickie, formula-driven product from this year, neither exemplary (like The Burning) nor abysmal (like Don’t Go in the Woods). As with all slashers it has a central exploitable gimmick, which can be summed up by its tagline, “Some May Pass the Test…God Help the Rest.” Okay, so it’s not the most compelling gimmick (this one takes place at a college!), but I have a weakness for campus-set B-movies, and the central pleasure of this film from writer/director Jimmy Huston (My Best Friend is a Vampire) is its inexperienced but overly-enthusiastic young cast, the community college shooting locations, and the fact that the whole film feels like it was pasted together with a glue stick like construction paper decorations hanging in a school gymnasium.
The film opens with what might be the most clichéd set-up in the horror subgenre: a couple parked in a convertible at a make-out point wondering about those strange noises in the night. Despite concerns that the local frat boys might be lurking just outside their vehicle pranking them, they shrug it off and continue to make out. The boy is killed. The girl screams. Takes a breath. Then screams again. Takes another breath. The killer isn’t wearing a mask; he doesn’t look particularly tall, but he’s strong. He stabs his victims with a large knife. He wears blue jeans. The only narrative innovation of Final Exam is that the killer is completely unexplained. After he slaughters teenagers at this college, he moves on to Lanier College and begins another round of murder. We don’t learn his name or any hints of his past; in any other slasher he would be the victim of a frat boy hazing gone wrong, now bent on revenge. Almost indifferently, director Huston reveals his face during the final scenes, but he is no one the audience is expected to recognize. Radish (Joel S. Rice), the film’s pocket protector-wearing horror movie fan and true crime lover, explains that mass murders can happen at any time and for any reason, and so the story takes this approach. Perhaps uncomfortably for a modern viewer, a final exam session is interrupted by a terrorist attack – ski-mask wearing gunmen who hop out of a van and spray bullets at the college students – until we learn that this is just another fraternity prank. (Well, it’s obvious this is a red herring from the start, but it’s awkward to watch it unfold nonetheless.) Radish phones the local sheriff (Sam Kilman), who chastises him over the lack of dead bodies. His discussion with the college kids and the gym coach (Jerry Rushing) is interminable. Nonetheless, the sheriff will now vanish from the film.
Another unique aspect of Final Exam: apart from the opening sequence, the killings will not start until an hour into the film. This might have been an opportunity to better develop the characters, as in Bob Clark’s classic Black Christmas (1974), but the results are variable. Of the assortment of young adult stereotypes, the “good” (and presumably virginal) kids Radish and Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) come off the best, and you root for them, even though Radish is given to delivering lines like “There’s no such thing as a free brunch” – or perhaps because he says things like that. His painful attempt to flirt with her in her dorm room is, perhaps, the most horrifying moment in this “horror movie.” And yet he feels authentic, even when amateur actor Rice gives line readings that occasionally approach Eddie Deezen levels. Let me make this clear: “Radish” is indispensable to the enjoyment Final Exam provides. And Courtney we can identify straight away as the Final Girl, but she seems like an authentic college student, not a genre-sculpted caricature. On the other hand, her roommate Lisa (soap actress DeAnna Robbins) is the pretty blonde who’s cheerfully sleeping with her professor to pass her tests, and gets the requisite nude scene; and the frat boys Mark (John Fallon) and Wildman (Ralph Brown) are as deplorable as they are two-dimensional. A dull subplot, barely developed, involves Gary (Terry W. Farren), a frat pledge tormented by Mark and Wildman, and Gary’s ambivalent girlfriend Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, Killer Party). Characters like these leave us begging for the killings to start.
As for the “kills,” they’re not much, and it’s a joke that this film made Britain’s Video Nasty list. When they finally get going, they at least arrive with speed, the cast dispatched rapidly. The most creative death involves one frat boy’s murder via weight bench, although another, as the killer bursts suddenly from a door and drags his victim through it, is admirably out-of-nowhere. The final confrontation has shades of giallo movies as Courtney is pursued to the top of a bell tower, the steps encircling a vast drop to the bottom of the gallery. But the ending also underlines just how much Huston is striving to copy Halloween, briefly suggesting that the killer might be invincible. I can’t imagine too many teenagers going to the drive-in to see Final Exam in 1981 were particularly entertained; it’s too slow without justifying its pacing, and when the action does kick in, it’s not gory or shocking enough to stick in the memory. But modern viewers can appreciate that it’s unglossy and oddly sincere for a slasher film. Shot in Selby, North Carolina (with a cast recruited out of Los Angeles), it has the feel of a regional genre film, and the enthusiasm of this amateur production is evident and genuine.