In a time when countless Friday The 13th and Halloween clones were dominating the horror marketplace, Final Exam stands out as a very different kind of slasher. Instead of pumping the film full of gratuitous violence (it really doesn’t have any) and nudity (pretty sparse), the producers decided to tone down the violence and focus on giving the characters some weight. It sounds like a godsend on paper – a slasher film with some character development! – but it focuses so much on who the cliché bunch of kids are that it becomes a bloated, unfunny coming-of-age college comedy with a slasher subplot crammed in to capitalize on the genre’s appeal.
After an opening where a canoodling couple is killed in their parked car, the action switches to Lanier College during final exam week. The nerd is busy studying his heart out, the jocks are carrying out really elaborate schemes to cheat, and students are sleeping with teachers to pass; in other words, pretty standard stuff. Except, in a slasher film, someone should be dying, and Final Exam doesn’t kill off anyone else until almost an hour in. The characters are dealing with reasonably plausible scenarios and they do have distinctively different personalities from one another, but they’re still stock characters dealing with situations that are better handled in other films.
The one notable exception is the campus fraternity faking a school shooting to distract some teachers from paying attention to their students so they could cheat. It’s pretty hilarious how intense their diversion is, throwing the campus into a panic and getting the sheriff to come out, but even in a pre-Columbine era, it was a really brave stunt to pull in the film, let alone one that ultimately provides the asshole jocks that pulled it off without any consequences – well, they do eventually get killed, but the sheriff lets them off the hook for their stunt, which is RIDICULOUS.
The biggest disappointment in Final Exam is that the killer – who resembles Richard Kiel, albeit a bit smaller – has no motive and seems to strike randomly, which is creepy in a way, but they show his face during the first kill, which is counterproductive to building up any mystery or suspense. You never question who among those left on the campus it is – whether it be male or female, student or faculty – and it makes the second act, which could have been used for this very reason, even more of a slog to sit through. Even if he had a small backstory or a name, like Michael Myers, it could’ve worked; instead, Radish (Joel S. Rice), the resident nerd, keeps bringing up that people are randomly and brutally killed every day, and that’s supposed to be enough.
Final Exam tries to be different and fails miserably, proving that going out on a limb doesn’t always work. The very basis of the slasher genre is built upon exploitable elements, and writer/director Jimmy Huston doesn’t seem to have the slightest grasp of that; if Final Exam didn’t use the familiar archetypes and plot points, it would be hard to even classify it as such. Character development is more than welcome in a subgenre where it’s sorely lacking, but it should make things interesting rather than becoming a crutch for a snoozer of a film.
Commentary – Katarina Leigh Waters, a former WWE diva, moderates the track featuring producer Myron Meisel. It’s a pretty lively chat about the film, which is at its most interesting when Meisel is discussing how sloppy and haphazardly the film was conceived and thrown together. They actually did the opposite of what studios are doing today by throwing in a topless scene to guarantee an R-rating, even though the violence is almost non-existent (Meisel says the film originally got an X because the MPAA likes to bully low-budget distributors, which is true).
Interviews With The Stars (14:36) – A collection of individual interviews with Cecile Bagdadi (Courtney), Joel S. Rice (Radish), and Sherry Willis-Burch (Janet). The questions aren’t particularly insightful, but it doesn’t help that the film itself isn’t exactly riveting and deep, so I can’t really say I blame the interviewer.
There’s also an option to watch the film in the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” format, which is just an introduction by Waters.