With so many slashers being released between 1980 and 1982, there were countless films that fail to receive the recognition they deserved. Whilst hardly the masterpiece that Halloween was, Jimmy Huston’s 1981 campus thriller Final Exam was an above average effort which benefited from an atmospheric score and impressive use of shadows. The story may have been textbook – a killer stalks a group of kids at a boarding college – but Huston at least boasted a few unique ideas to keep the viewer interested. Yet Final Exam is one of the most dismissed slashers of the early eighties, often mentioned in the same breath as Don’t Go in the Woods…Alone! and Graduation Day as examples of how generic this type of film can be. And whilst it’s hardly likely to convert those that despise the genre, it is still a worth addition to a slasher fan’s video collection.
Two students from March College pull up on lover’s lane and begin to make out in the darkness. The girl (Carol Capka) is somewhat reluctant to stay out in such a creepy environment, but her boyfriend (Shannon Norfleet) convinces her that they are safe. Convinced that she can hear a noise outside, she asks him to put the top back up on the convertible, but as they head onto the backseat and continue to explore each other a figure (Timothy L. Raynor) quietly heads over and bangs against the car. Thinking they are his quarterback friends, he man ignores the sounds but suddenly feet appear as someone climbs on top of the hood and tears the roof open. The man starts the car and tries to drive away but the figure drags him out and repeatedly stabs him as the girlfriend looks on hysterical.
The following day at the nearby Lanier College, Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) sits on the stairs studying before making her way outside. There she meets up with her friends, spoilt freeloader Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) and hopeless romantic Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch). As they head across the campus they are joined by frat brother Mark (John Fallon) and nerd Radish (John S. Rice), who clearly has an obsession with Courtney. He reveals the details of the grizzly murders the night before and expresses disappointment at how the killer only managed to carve up two victims, reciting his useless knowledge of serial killer trivia. Janet’s boyfriend, Gary (Terry W. Farren) is a pledge for Mark’s fraternity and is the constant victim of his cruel jokes and bullying, along with his equally arrogant friend Wildman (Ralph Brown).
After what appears to be a terrorist shooting is revealed to have been a stunt by the Gamma Delta fraternity, lead by Wildman, to allow Gary to cheat during his exam. Radish, believing the incident to be real, phones the police, resulting in a very cynical and angry sheriff (Sam Kilman) reading the riot act. Meanwhile, a van has driven onto campus and the figure has begun to prowl the halls and bushes in search of victims, with Radish constantly warning Courtney about the serious dangers of serial killers, not knowing that one is literally around the corner. Falling for the ‘Cry Wolf’ dilemma, when Radish discovers that a maniac really is loose he phones the police again but this time the sheriff refuses to come out, leaving him and Courtney to face the killer alone.
There are several aspects which lift Final Exam up above many of the other obscure slashers of the era. The score, by first-timer Gary S. Scott (who would later work on Freddy’s Nightmares), is highly effective and helps build the tension, especially during the mid-section of the movie when no murders occur. The partnership of director Huston and cinematographer Darrell Cathcart helps create a sense of danger, with each shadow proving particularly menacing. With the violence being relatively blood-free, much of the film relies on Halloween-like stalking sequences, rather reminiscent of the way that Michael Myers would linger at the side of the screen. Perhaps the film’s most effective moment is when Wildman heads through darkness of the gym, only for the scoreboards to suddenly light up. Confused as to who else is there, he turns on the main lights to discover the killer standing right in front of him.
Unfortunately, whilst Raynor may have mastered chasing his victims, the moments when he is required to be physical with his co-stars (such as during a fist fight with Brown) his performance seems a little wooden, with his punches and kicks being too over-the-top like theatre acting. Whilst Bagdadi proves to be an adequate final girl (particularly during the last few minutes), the star of the show is most definitely Rice, who makes the most of his oddball role. Radish is the most developed of all the characters and Rice portrays him with a mix of camp and eccentricity that not only makes him humorous but also sympathetic. The rest of the cast are made up of generic and wooden performances who, whilst play there parts relatively well, lack any truly memorable characteristics. Final Exam may fall short of being a truly great slasher film but it still worthy of your attention.