Scream Factory goes back to college for hijinks and horror with its Blu-ray edition of the 1981 slasher FINAL EXAM but it might not pass the test for some viewers.
During final exam week, Lanier College is rocked by a violent school shooting perpetrated by machine gun-toting masked assailants who round up the bodies and drive off with them in a van. Diligent, crime-obsessed, nerd Radish (Joel S. Rice) copies down the license number and alerts the police. When the sheriff (Sam Kilman, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY) learns that the van belonged to jock Wildman (Ralph Brown), he and fellow Gamma preppy frat guy Mark (John Fallon) – who used the diversion to cheat on his exam – get in trouble for orchestrating the prank, and target Radish as the fall guy for their more illegal activities ("Gamma House. Tests or pills?"). Meanwhile, final girl Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is stressing over exams, Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, KILLER PARTY) is annoyed that her boyfriend Gary (Terry Farren) is more interested in joining the Gammas than their budding relationship, and lovely Lisa (DeAnna Robbins, TEXAS GODFATHER) has arranged an assignation with Professor Reynolds (Don Hepner) in the art studio. This atmosphere of grueling tests, elaborate pranks, hazing, and inappropriate teacher-student relationships allows a hulking killer (Timothy W. Raynor) to move about the campus and pick off random coeds and horny faculty, with the only one aware accused of crying wolf.
The film opens with an overlong sequence in which a couple making out in a car are murdered by a knife-wielding killer. After that, it spends about an hour establishing the characters’ relationships with one another before the killer finally gets to his rampage. While slasher films generally spend a stretch of the film setting up characters to be killed, the better ones at least remember to build up an atmosphere of menace with a mix of false scares, sightings of the killer’s lurking presence (by the camera and the heroine), and a helping of nudity (both for the sake of titillation and for enhanced vulnerability, especially for a false scare). The closest thing we get to a false scare is the unattributed prank of a book falling off the top of a closet door, while the few glimpses of the lurking killer call too much attention to themselves to be creepy. Twenty minutes of exposition – introducing characters, mapping out the locations for later, setting up where characters are planning to be later where they can be targeted – is pretty much doubled in place of the more parsed out stalk and kill scenes. Only two of actual the killings deviates from the usual stalk-and-stab method; and only one of which is performed with any real visual panache (especially compared to the splattery squib hits of the shooting prank). The film picks up during the last twenty minutes, but Bagdadi’s Courtney seems to have been picked at random as the final girl. Granted, she is the more diligent and less sexually-active of the three main girls, but Radish is more conventionally aware – in a slasher film sense – of the real or imagined warning signs of impending doom. He isn’t exactly a precursor of Jamie Kennedy’s SCREAM character – he’s obsessed with serial killers and random acts of violence rather than horror movies – but he knows that killings do not always need a motivation; and that is what distinguishes the killer from those in other slasher films. Commentaries and interviews on other slasher film DVDs usually refer to drug references and political incorrectness when the participants remark “You couldn’t do this today,” but FINAL EXAM’s opening prank is certainly something that would not go over well in this age where tragic school shootings are all too commonplace.
After languishing on video shelves as an Embassy Home Entertainment VHS (and even rarer CED), FINAL EXAM made its digital debut in 2008 courtesy of BCI/Eclipse in a softish anamorphic transfer with a commentary by actors Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch (moderated by New Beverly programmer Julie Marchese and horror fan Deron Miller of the band CKY), as well as short interviews with the three. This disc went out of print pretty quickly and prices shot up even for used copies. When Scorpion Releasing re-released the film as part of the "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" line in 2011, they not only did a new HD master from the original camera negatives, they also recorded a brand new informative commentary with producer Myron Meisel (moderated by Katarina Leigh Waters). They dropped the cast commentary but carried over the actor interviews. For Scream Factory's 1080p MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray, Shout! has used the same HD master created by Scorpion. What blood there is looks a bit bright – like the dyed Karo syrup it always was – and a couple faint scratches call more attention to themselves, but the night scenes have more depth than in SD (one really wonders now how Janet could have mistaken the hulking silhouette on the water tower for her stick figure boyfriend) and one realizes thanks to the increased resolution that the film actually was art-directed (check out those posters for MURDER IS MY BEAT, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS, and THE CORPSE GRINDERS in Radish's room along with the various disturbing paraphernalia (as well as Deanna Robbins' lack of a bra even before her nude scene). No complaints about the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the mono soundtrack, but the optional SDH subtitles do make one glaring error identifying the father of one character as "John Chandlis" rather than "Chambliss" as a shout-out to one of the film's producers (the commentators mention that a couple of the names mentioned in the film are crew members or friends/relatives of same).
Scream Factory have dropped the producer commentary in favor of the original cast commentary (it's possible that the licensors only have rights to the cast track since it was absent from the Scorpion release, and this does not seem to be a collaboration with the latter company) and have carried over the three interviews: Joel S. Rice (6:46), Cecile Bagdadi (3:42), Sherry Willis-Burch (4:57). Bagdadi’s audition consisted of screaming, and her scream was such that the filmmakers had her also dub the screams of the other actresses. Rice was in California for college and had to head back to the West coast twice for auditions while driving cross-country back home to Boston before landing the role. MPM signed him to a three-picture deal which, of course, did not pan out (Rice became a social worker for a time and then became a TV producer). Burch was working for MPM while studying acting at UCLA and was cast without an audition. The information in the interviews is all included on the commentary track as well, where the three recall shooting on three campuses while staying at a motel on the lot of Earl Owensby's Shelby, North Carolina studio (still in construction). They point out all of the crew members who doubled as extras, joke about their 1980s hair and costumes, discuss their subsequent careers (Rice is a producer of TV movies, Willis-Burch is a schoolteacher, Bagdadi is a stay-at-home mother who has worked with the L.A. Theater), as well as their friendships after the film (Bagdadi also had recent contact with director Huston and is able to provide some additional production anecdotes from his perspective as well as his reactions to the finished film). They also debate with moderator Marchese about her theory of twin killers. Rice correctly points out that a direct cut from one scene to another is not indicative of the amount of time that has passed between them so it is not as if the killer is in more than once place simultaneously – which may be more a shortcoming of Huston's editing rhythms – although Marchese does make a good point about it being unlikely that two freezer doors next one another are a connecting room (especially since there is a third freezer door in between them). It's not as informative a track as the Meisel one, but not a bad way to "enjoy" the film. The film's theatrical trailer (1:30) is the only other extra. The lack of any new material – other than the transfer – makes Scream Factory's FINAL EXAM hardly definitive; but it's a good companion piece to the Scorpion Release if you didn't grab the BCI disc or have always wanted an HD bump-up of this bloodless slasher. (Eric Cotenas)
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