In 1981, releasing a slasher movie to theaters was like having a license to print money. The subgenre was in high demand and the nature of U.S. film distribution still allowed for tiny indie outfits to get in on the action of a hot trend. Thus, smaller outfits made it to market with some curious efforts that leave a lot of horror fans scratching their heads today. One such effort is Final Exam, a southern-set slasher that breaks virtually every rule in this subgenre’s playbook while just barely fulfilling its commercial requirements.
After a perfunctory pre-credits kill, Final Exam settles into an unusually long stretch of character development as we meet the students running around at a small college in the south during the last few days of exams. For instance, there’s Radish (Joel S. Rice), the class nerd who is fixated on the subject of psychotic killers. There’s also Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), a studious type in the Laurie Strode mold who seems destined to be the film’s “final girl.” Around them, a variety of mostly interchangeable coeds deal with exams, pledge hazing, fraternity pranks, etc.
There also happens to be a hulking psycho who stalks the grounds of the school… but does nothing during the first hour except for that pre-credits murder. Once the film’s third act begins, he begins hacking his way through the student body, mostly offscreen. It’s up to Radish and Courtney to deal with the chaos as the film builds toward the expected psycho vs. final girl finale.
Final Exam is often criticized by slasher fanatics for its strange, possibly unintentional disregard for the simple rules of the genre. It confines most of its killings to the film’s final half-hour instead of spreading them out throughout the film to keep the audience on edge. It has very little blood and just one peekaboo flash of nudity. Even stranger, the film never makes any attempt to set up any suspects for the killer’s identity – despite having an obvious potential patsy in Radish – and it shows no interest in giving that killer any kind of identity at all.
The strangest part of the film it its willingness to devote almost an entire hour to sub-Animal House hijinks, including one jumbo-size prank based on a premise that has become so taboo in recent years that it would be hard to imagine it making its way into a theatrically released film today. Combine that aspect of the film with its insistence on devoting time to characters who never grow beyond a paper-thin level of depth and you have and you have a talky, jokey opening hour that is a deal-breaker for a lot of Final Exam viewers.
That said, the film isn’t the worst slasher ever made and has a few modest charms for the patient horror archaeologist. Writer/director Jimmy Huston manages some effective setpieces during the final half-hour, including a well-choreographed fight sequence between the killer and the film’s main jock character and a killer vs. final girl chase finale that works in both the unexpected return of one character and a weapon you rarely see in slasher films. Incidental rewards for viewers include a barrage of fascinatingly bad early ’80s hairdos and the film’s left-field attempt to transform Radish, who would normally be a comic relief nerd, into a romantic lead/hero(!).
In short, it’s not hard to understand why Final Exam doesn’t often appear in “best slasher movie” lists but it has a certain amount of interest as a curiosity item and a footnote to a more naive era of horror filmmaking. That said, results will vary so horror fans should proceed with caution. Don’t say you weren’t warned about this film’s ‘odd duck’ status.