1981 was a good year for horror. Movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th had paved the way for what would be eventually know as the “slasher film” and by 1981, just about every movie studio was cranking out at least one a year. The year had produced the long awaited sequel Halloween II and several other now iconic favorites My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday To Me and Nightmare (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain).
Final Exam was a very low budget entry in the slasher genre and I’m not sure how well it did in the theaters. However it was released to home video from Avco/Embassy which is how I came across it in the VHS rental boom of the 80’s. It didn’t satiate my bloody pallet of the time period but did provide 90 minutes of entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.
Final Exam begins promising enough with a couple out parking out in a wooded area near their college. The two are attacked by an unknown assailant who pulls the boyfriend out of the car through the convertible top and stabs him with a butcher knife (ala Michael Myers). The story then cuts to Lanier College where many of the students are taking their mid term exams and leaving for their break. We get the usual collection of college kids; the cute, studious and straight laced Courtney, the frat boy Mark, the big dumb jock “Wildman” and of course the mousy nerd “Radish”. I would say the rest of the cast is just fodder for the killer’s butcher knife but they are actually fleshed quite well despite the amateur acting. It’s an aspect that I like about Final Exam. Director Jimmy Huston opted to actually develop his characters instead of just filming bloody death after bloody death to fill up the running time. A good portion of the film is spent getting to know the characters and giving the viewer moments to let them know the killer is nearby and stalking them all. The body count doesn’t start until around the 40 minute mark.
Final Exam is also very restrained as far as bloodletting is concerned. Several deaths are hinted at more than anything else and bodies are discovered in aftermath style. The heroine is pretty easy to figure out in the beginning of the film, which is pretty standard for a slasher film of the era. However the killer’s motive is never explained in this one. Most slasher films have a psychopath that kills for a reason be it a childhood trauma or something else. This killer however just kills for no reason. He also never tries to hide his face with a mask, which seemed to be the status quo by 1981. Director Huston did a great job of hiding the killer’s face with shadows and objects in the foreground, a feat that was rather difficult to achieve in a fight scene with one of the victims in the college weight room. The killer also uses one weapon, a simple butcher knife and dresses pretty ordinary in jeans and an old army jacket. Even though some have complained about the killer having no motive, this actually works for me because Huston was able to create a character that is actually pretty imposing and menacing in its purity.
Final Exam was filmed in Shelby, North Carolina through Earl Owensby Studios a studio that is still operational to this day! The studio was also used to film scenes for the 20th Century Fox blockbuster “The Abyss”. The crew also filmed at Gardner-Webb University and Limestone College which really gave the film an authentic college campus feel.
Final Exam was released on VHS through Embassy Entertainment and also on DVD from Code Red . Both of course are out of print but you should find some around at Ebay Happy hunting!