When you’re dealing with genre fare, regardless of the type of genre, vibe is a crucial part of the overall package. A genre movie doesn’t have to be a masterpiece or break new ground if it can create a mood and an atmosphere that the genre fan enjoys inhabiting. This is doubly true when you’re dealing with a genre style as minimalist as the slasher movie. The Final Terror is a good example of a slasher flick that succeeds primarily on the strength of its ability to create such a vibe: it bypasses narrative invention and brilliance in favor of craftsmanship aimed at building and sustaining a deliciously creepy mood.
Though the script involved three screenwriters – Jon George, Neill D. Hicks and Ronald Shusett – the plot of The Final Terror is pure slasher simplicity. Mike (Mark Metcalf) leads a group of young forest rangers deep into the woods for an exercise, over the objections of his hick-ish, misfit subordinate Eggar (Joe Pantoliano). The group includes a few veterans (like Lewis Smith), a new guy (Adrian Zmed) and some female guests (including Rachel Ward and Daryl Hannah!).
The early part of the trip involves some pranks and a spooky campfire tale about a tragic figure who supposedly haunts the woods. However, things get serious when Mark becomes separated from the pack and can’t be found. Things turn deadly when the remaining campers realize they are being watched by someone with sinister intentions. A game of cat and mouse begins, leading to a finale that mixes The Hills Have Eyes and Southern Comfort with a little splash of Deliverance.
As the above synopsis reveals, The Final Terror is not particularly original or ambitious in narrative terms. However, it makes up for its familiarity with a strong sense of craft. The characterizations are surprisingly low-key and the dialogue is more interesting and believable than you usually get in an indie slasher of this vintage.
It also helps that The Final Terror boasts a shockingly good cast: Smith and Metcalf contribute professional work, Ward and Hannah make likeable impressions and Zmed shows off solid comic chops as the film’s resident fish-out-of-water character. That said, Pantoliano is the scene-stealer – and this distinctly “Noo Yawk” actor is practically unrecognizable in his chameleonic turn as the kind of rural misfit that would be at home in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel.
That said, the element of The Final Terror that cements its appeal to slasher buffs is the strong work behind the camera. Director Andrew Davis would later be known for action films but shows a strong grasp of atmosphere here, transforming the forest into a major character in the film that is alluring and menacing by turns. It’s worth noting that he shot the film himself under a pseudonym and he makes beautiful use of natural light to create a believable “in the woods” feel.
Davis hits a nice blend of atmospheric moments and suspense mechanics, aided by tight editing masterminded by Allan Holzman that ensures the film is short enough (82 minutes) to avoid wearing out its welcome. Finally, the film boasts a creepy musical score from Susan Justin that goes for subtle instrumental shadings to achieve its effect instead of brash, noisy soundscapes.
In short, The Final Terror probably won’t win new converts to the slasher film – but it is the kind of confidently crafted programmer that will please the genre enthusiast. If you enjoy slashers from this era, dig in – the vibe is thick and enjoyably creepy.