The slasher craze of the 1980s was an odd time in Hollywood. Anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars and some young actors with minimum acting experience could make a movie about a killer who stalks/terrorizes young people.
Movies, such as Black Christmas and Halloween, helped to prove you didn’t need a big studio budget that The Omen and The Exorcist had. Then, Friday the 13th proved people would go to theaters and Halloween‘s success wasn’t a fluke. So, by 1981 when Final Exam hit theaters, slasher movies were at their peak. Almost every weekend, a new slasher movie was in theaters. And considering most of these movies didn’t have to open on theaters nationwide, they could be released in certain cities and regions then move around. The home video market was still a few years away from exploding.
Final Exam was released in late Feburary 1981 and despite being made for about the same budget as Halloween, still made over four times bad. While $1.3 million is a far cry from the $60 million both Halloween and Friday the 13th reportedly made, it was still impressive, especially if you consider just how mediocre it is.
I’ll be honest, this movie probably would’ve been forgotten among most horror fans if Randy Meeks didn’t mention it during a scene in Scream 2. And unlike other slasher films, like The Burning (featuring Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens) or Graduation Day (featuring Vanna White), there were no before-they-were-famous stars. Most of the cast went on to work on soap operas or behind the camera or nothing much else. The most successful cast member is Timothy L. Raynor who plays the killer, as he was a stuntman and actor who still continues to work on movies and TV shows.
Now, I mention Raynor as the killer because his character has no name, doesn’t speak any words, has no back story and just seems to know where some people will appear. Dressed in blue jeans and a long-sleeve green shirt, he stalks students at the fictional Lanier College set somewhere in the south based on the accents some of the characters have. Actual filming took place at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C. and at Isothermal Communituy College in Spindale, N.C.
The movie takes place roughly over 24 hours on the second to last day of exams at Lanier. This actually comes in handy creatively and financially as there’s no need to hire a bunch of actors if a college campus is supposed to be mostly deserted. The movie opens with a couple getting killed at March College, which is somewhere near Lanier as Radish (Joel S. Rice), the geeky student tells the other students Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) and her somewhat boyfriend, Mark (John Fallon) who is decked out in pure 1980s fashion.
Mark and his fellow classmate Wildman (Ralph Brown) a muscle-bound jock are part of Gamma Delta Psi, which is typical of frat boy humor and pranks. Actually, while Mark is taking a test, his fellow frat brothers stage a prank that definitely wouldn’t be in a movie today. They show up in ski masks with semi-automatic rifles and fire blanks at students in the community quad. This is so Mark can cheat on his exam while the teaching assistant is distracted.
Radish freaks and calls the sheriff who responds after it’s all been percevied as a hoax. This of course, sets up a later scene where Radish trying to contact the sheriff’s department after finding a dead body but not getting any help. I know they needed to set up a reason law enforcement wouldn’t respond later, but wow! A crisis response team would respond and all the frat boys would to jail.
Not much really happens as it sets up the killer lurking in the empty buildings. Even Courtney doesn’t know that there’s a killer on campus until he appears in her dormitory at the end. And there’s not much violence of gore which was the intention of writer-director Jimmy Huston. However, the movie was originally rated X because it was deemed the ending where Courtney stabs the killer was too much, so they cut it.
Part of the reason the movie was made was to capitalize off the slasher craze. That’s why the filmmakers didn’t give the killer a backstory or even a mask to where. But I will give Raynor the credit he deserves. He does look menacing in his role. And he walks with a purpose like where he’s walking he knows where he’s going. Nick Castle did the same thing as The Shape in Halloween and you can see the same stance Kane Hodder brought to Jason Vorhees in all four movies he portrayed the character.
Part of the problem is the movie makes the geek the most fascinating one. You can see the blueprints for Randy Meeks and other characters in later movies in Radish. I would say he is a hybrid of The Scholar and The Fool made famous in The Cabin in the Woods. Wildman is obviously The Athlete. But you could say he’s The Fool along with Mark. The Whore is Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) who is Courtney’s roommate who’s having an affair with a college professor. And Courtney is the Virginal Final Girl.
But part of the problem is Courtney isn’t all that much of a interesting character. She mostly seems to sit around in her dorm room for a good portion of the movie. Bagdadi was hired most for her screaming abilities and she comes off as a good Scream Queen. They reportedly even used her screams for another actress’ scene.
Final Exam does get a C for effort while a D-plus for its plot. And in college terms, that still a good passing grade.
What do you think? Please comment.