Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 24, 2014)
For a slice of early 1980s horror, we head to 1981’s Final Exam. A prologue shows a bloody murder on the campus of March College before we head to nearby Lanier College, where the end of the semester nears. The students go through finals and have the usual personal and academic concerns. They seem more amused by the March College murders than upset.
Perhaps they should’ve been more concerned. Inevitably the same psycho from March sets his bloodthirsty sights on the remaining students at Lanier. We follow the body count.
Question of the day: did anyone actually see Final Exam in the theaters? Apparently it got a short run, but I have no memory of this movie at all. I was 14 in 1981 and loved the era’s slasher flicks, so this one must’ve gone under the radar.
Second question of the day: did my teenage self miss out on anything? No – no no no no no. I’m happy I never saw this atrocity, as it might have stunted my growth – and I was already pretty stunted anyway.
Going into Exam, I expected a duplicate of 1980’s Friday the 13th. That was the era’s most recent horror hit, and the poster art for Exam echoes the ad for Friday, so I anticipated something along the lines of the influential 1980 smash.
To be sure, Exam offers a copycat, but it rips off a different source: 1978’s Halloween. Much of Exam traces the Halloween template, as we find an abundance of similar elements. Heck, the murderer even moves/kills/looks more than a little like Michael Myers.
The biggest difference comes from motivation/backstory. While Halloween gives Michael a history and a catalyst of sorts, Exam doesn’t bother with any of this. Its maniac comes from nowhere and we never learn anything about him. Like Michael, he remains mute, but unlike Myers, Exam never even bothers to give its psycho a name; it simply bills him as “Killer”.
After I watched the movie, I checked out a few viewer comments and learned that some people really liked the anonymity of the murderer. They felt this made him scarier, as we couldn’t ascribe his motivations to childhood trauma or whatnot. They believe Exam’s “Killer” delivers the scariest kind of horror villain: one with absolutely no rhyme or reason – though like Myers and countless others in the genre, he sure does seem to hate attractive young people.
Perhaps a better movie could’ve milked the anonymity of “Killer” for chilling results, but the incompetence at the core of Exam scuttles those possibilities. I get the impression that “Killer” lacks personality or exposition not as a thematic statement; instead, this appears to occur because the filmmakers just were too lazy or unimaginative to come up with a real character.
The movie’s creators sure didn’t skimp on the potential development of the college students, though. They get tons of screen time before any of the Lanier murders happen; bizarrely, we wait almost an hour into the proceedings before “Killer” finally does his thing at that school.
For a movie like this, that’s nuts. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that we’d care more about the students if we really got to know them, or that the slow build to the actual murders would create a higher level of tension.
If so, they were wrong on both accounts. The movie does hint at potential villainy before something actually occurs, but those moments feel neither tense nor chilling; they just come across like cheap teases.
All that time spent with the students goes nowhere. We learn nothing about them beyond the usual easy stereotypes – the nerd, the good girl, the bully, the spoiled preppy, the slut, etc. – and we never care about them in the least.
Because of this, all the time spent pre-murders leaves us with an exceedingly dull film. Hoo boy, does Exam move slowly, and without any interesting characters or situations, extreme boredom results.
But when we do finally get to the murders, they’re vivid and terrifying, right? Nope. Exam avoids the big, elaborate murders that became a staple of the Friday franchise and subsequent horror efforts. Maybe this was another nod to the nearly bloodless Halloween, but it just means another strike against the film. Without either the elaborate gore of Friday or the delicious tension of Halloween, the killings in Exam fall flat.
The review’s over, and I never even got to the amateurishness of the acting! To single out the cast would be a mistake, as everything about Final Exam screams “cheap, bargain basement filmmaking”. This one seems to exist in an attempt to rip off other flicks and make a quick buck. It boasts zero creative success.