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Monday, August 24, 2009

Slashback: The Understated Brilliance of Formula in ‘Final Exam’

College campuses have been fertile ground for slasher films, going back as far as 1932 with the sorority sisters revenge flick THIRTEEN WOMEN before hitting the mainstream in 1974 with BLACK CHRISTMAS. In the 90’s and beyond, the tradition continued with films like URBAN LEGEND, CRY_WOLF, and SCREAM 2.

While the cost of higher education soared in the Regan-era 80’s, the college crowd in the slasher films of that decade paid for their tuition in blood – literally – in films like THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT, and FINAL EXAM.

FINAL EXAM is a painfully sincere 1981 entry in the slasher canon that’s light on gore and nearly tension-free, with a grainy grindhouse look that even a respectable DVD transfer can’t hide. But look a little closer and you’ll find a rather insightful commentary on the randomness of modern society that’s carried through in every aspect of the film.

In the post-credit prologue, a student couple is making out in a convertible parked by a lake on the campus of March College. The set-up is by-the-numbers: an uneasy girl who wants the top back up and declarations of love before she’ll offer herself to a horny, feather-haired football quarterback. Branches snap, the car bounces slightly, and before the jock can finish explaining why they’re better off parking on campus than some deserted road, a butcher knife slices through the convertible’s roof. Our hapless frat boy is swiftly pulled up through the roof and flung onto the hood of the car where we see the knife plunge repeatedly downward. Girl screams. End scene.

Cut to neighboring Lanier College, where much time is spent introducing us to the usual assortment of potential victims preparing for the end of the semester and...wait for it…final exams. There’s Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), a Laurie Strode knock-off from the virtue and insecurity right down to the hair; the oddly named Radish (Joel S. Rice), a pocket-protected flaming nerd who makes SAVED BY THE BELL’S Screech look butch by comparison; Wildman(Ralph Brown), the clichéd vulgar dumb jock; Mark (John Fallon), the preppy, over-privileged all-American frat boy; Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), the worldly promiscuous coed sleeping with her lothario Chemistry professor; Janet (Sherri Willis-Burch), the lovestruck, wide-eyed Southern belle; and Gary (Terry W. Farren), the sensitive, gullible fraternity pledge. Let’s double-check our slasher roll call: final girl, leading man, nerd, dumb jock, slut, and loving young heterosexual couple (here standing in for the lone black guy who dies first) – all present and accounted for.

The introductory scenes – while screenwriter/director Jimmy Huston’s earnest attempt at establishing character – are tortuous. Punctuated by schmaltzy, made-for-TV movie music, these early scenes are filled with woe-is-me ruminations like “If I don’t pass my chemistry test, my parents will stop making the payments on my car!” and other assorted teen angst about how tough life is, ultimately making it hard to empathize with much of the cast. There are lots of references to how empty the campus is; meanwhile the backgrounds are packed with extras. Also lots of ominous foreboding going on that masquerades as meaningful character interaction, like Courtney’s exploration of her resentment toward fellow coed Lisa and her seeming “free ride” through life about whom Radish (insightfully) predicts, “She’ll pay a price sooner or later – there is no free lunch.” There is if she’s got the meal plan, but that’s not really the point, I suppose.

There are some semblances of subplot here. In one, an elaborate fraternity prank during which masked gunmen “open fire” on a crowded quadrangle helps Mark ensure his passing grade on that chemistry test by creating a diversion. And while much of the film comes across outdated as one would suspect (antiquated fraternity pinning as a courtship ritual anyone?), this nearly 30-year-old scene plays with a particularly audacious political incorrectness in today’s post-Columbine world.

After what seems hours after the staged incident, the town’s redneck sheriff (Sam Kilman) finally shows up channeling Bo Svenson with a drawl. Needless to say, he’s not pleased to find out that the whole thing’s a fraternity prank and this sets the scene for his later refusal to come back to Lanier when the bodies start falling out of gym lockers.

Finally, after what seems like interminable chattering about love, life, and the pursuit of passing grades (in reality, it’s about 55 minutes), the body count begins. Four stabbings, one head pulled through a door, and one mildly inventive garroting involving gym equipment later and it’s off to the protracted final chase during which the killer (Timothy L. Raynor) arrives via dumbwaiter(!) and the telephones actually work! Courtney is pursued across campus through suddenly empty dorms, vacant cafeterias, and finally what appears to be a bell-less bell tower. Just when she’s cornered at the top and looks like she’s done for, the football coach (Jerry Rushing) – who, it’s alluded to in an earlier scene, is something of an accomplished archer – arrives with bow and arrow in-hand. He shoots but doesn’t score – the killer actually catches the shooting arrow with one arm(!) – and then makes haste up the stairs on a head-on collision with the descending killer that ends with the coach’s own arrow being thrust through his chest. Our killer hoofs it back up the stairs (this maniac is really put through his paces here) where Courtney has found a convenient two-by-four, which she promptly begins to pummel him with until he takes a Michael Myers-esque swan dive over the railing and plummets umpteenth stories to his “death.” Mmm hmm.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Courtney comes down the stairs and walks within inches of our killer’s supposedly lifeless body in the film’s requisite Adrienne King-in-a-canoe scene. After the traditional ankle grab, resourceful Court picks up the killer’s butcher knife – which has opportunely landed right there within reach of his body – and stabs him exactly one dozen times. Having passed this test of survival (dare I say, her final exam), she takes her well-earned battered and bloody stroll down the front steps of the building where she proceeds to cradle her head in her arms as the end credits roll.

Let’s give the detractors their due. Yes, at first glance, FINAL EXAM does seem like a cheap derivative. There are the requisite nods to HALLOWEEN, like when Courtney spies the killer lurking outside her dorm from a 2nd floor window or the standard killer POV shots or the shadow of the killer passing behind a clueless victim-to-be or the murky silhouette of the killer lying in wait just out of sight on a stairwell. There’s the film's score that sounds like a mash-up of the soundtracks from HALLOWEEN and HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE. FINAL EXAM also gives us all the illogic we come to expect from a slasher film. I mean, just how does cinema’s slowest moving killer make it back to Courtney’s room before Radish, who runs faster that a would-be bride on discount day at Filene’s Basement?

FINAL EXAM also lends some credibility to theorists who hypothesize that the slasher film is often chock-full of generous queer subtext. Indeed, one doesn’t need to look too deeply for the blatant homoeroticism in FINAL EXAM. If the master-servant nature between fraternity brother and pledge isn’t quite enough to convince you, how about Wildman’s overt nuzzling of pledge Gary’s ear before the rest of the frat gang strips him to his underwear and ties him to a tree? Bondage, tighty-whities, being force stripped by a gang of hunky college guys who seem to be enjoying the proceedings a little too much – can you say gay porn? Still not enough? Then try to look at John Fallon’s khaki-clad ass throughout the film and not use the word bottom.

Alright, so why haven’t I said much about FINAL EXAM’S killer? Well, there’s not much to say. Our killer has no identity – no name, no backstory, no signature mask. He’s a nondescript Caucasian male who wears jeans and an army fatigue jacket and drives a black panel van with no markings. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t grunt. He has no facial expressions, and Huston makes no effort to conceal him. Yet he’s an important aspect of FINAL EXAM’S underlying strength: its understatement.

Yes, that’s right, a slasher film that’s understated – understated to the point of being so bland, so generic, that it could be easily overlooked as yet another lifeless HALLOWEEN imitation. And it is, but yet it’s not. Confused? Let me try to explain.

I think Jimmy Huston was on to something – something he actually pulls off, but so subtly that he appears to miss the mark to less discerning viewers quick to dismiss this as yet another Carpenter clone. Huston appears to be making a comment on the changing landscape of the early 80’s, a decade in which everything – from sound to clothing to corporate career paths – was becoming so rote and routine as to be losing any semblance of character or individuality. It was the decade of the copycat – art forms copying themselves and artists cashing in. Different facade, same core. We saw it in everything from primetime soaps, to synthesized music, to, yes, slasher films. One led to another, to another, to another. Formula was cash, and cash was king. This genericism permeates throughout FINAL EXAM’S characterless college campus, its genre-defying unimaginative kills, its featureless protagonist. Even the absence of people of color in the cast seems to speak to a certain degree of societal white-washing if one looks close enough.

This theme of societal monotony comes full circle and is realized in the randomness of the film’s violence. Even in the bona fide HALLOWEEN clones, the killers weren’t without their reasons: a jilted lover in HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE, a traumatized fraternity pledge in TERROR TRAIN, a grieving brother in PROM NIGHT. Yes, it’s all about revenge of some kind, but there is genuine human motivation behind it.

There is a raison d’être, a reason for being.

But here, our killer has no reason. His acts of killing are random, monotonous. Even the film’s final girl is seemingly selected at random when she merely passes by the killer’s parked van. As fretful Radish says at one point in the film, “People are killed for no reason every day.” And so it is, too, in FINAL EXAM, that students are killed without premeditation, order, or any particular passion. Physical presence is the only prerequisite for being marked for death. Huston’s nameless, faceless, characterless killer represented all that was random and meaningless in the evolving culture of the 80’s. The senseless crimes of serial killers like Gary Leon Ridgway (The Green River Killer), Donald Harvey (Angel of Death), Ted Bundy, and Robert Hansen held working-class America in a grip of fear with their reign of seemingly random killings. AIDS didn’t make sense – it claimed random victims in a monotonous replication. There was randomness and monotony in the evolution of the corporate male experience in the 80’s (explored to the point of brilliant hyperbole in both the book and film versions of AMERICAN PSYCHO). There was even retail repetitiveness in everyday suburbia, where different designer labels were slapped on the same products – where arbitrary values were placed on certain yuppie accoutrements.

Huston’s film captures that uninspired time in our culture and the formulaic patterns of the time. Unfortunately, the irony of a formulaic slasher epitomizing everything that was mechanical about our evolving culture at the time was lost on the casual viewer hungry for a higher, bloodier body count and a flash or two of boobies.

Footnotes:

WHERE ARE THEY NOW? For Bagdadi (Courtney), Brown (Wildman), Fallon (Mark), and Ferren (Gary, aka Pledge), FINAL EXAM would be their only brush with filmland. Willis-Burch (Janet) made just one more movie, the aforementioned KILLER PARTY. Robbins (Lisa) went on to work on several daytime soap operas and did some episodic TV before dropping off the radar in the late eighties. Rushing (Coach) made thirteen additional films until 2000 when he retired from acting and opened a year-round wild boar hunting preserve near Taylorsville, North Carolina, called the Chestnut Hunting Lodge. Only Rice (Radish) and, interestingly, Raynor (Killer) continue to work in the industry today. Kilman (Sheriff) died in 1998 at the age of 57, after making only one appearance on DALLAS post EXAM.

DVD RELEASE: The DVD release, while nothing in the technical department to write home about, is worth the VHS conversion if only for the three cast interviews included.

Joel S. Rice (Radish) chats about the film’s six-week shoot in Shelby, North Carolina, and reveals that he left acting in the mid-eighties to pursue a Masters degree in Social Work. He eventually missed the entertainment industry and came back as a producer and has produced over 25 TV movies since the early nineties (although he did make a brief return to acting playing a math teacher in the family-friendly 2007 TV-movie SHREDDERMAN RULES, directed by Savage Steve Holland of cult-classic BETEROFF DEAD fame).

Cecile Bagdadi (Courtney) contributes an amusing anecdote about how she botched her first “scream test” while auditioning. After some practice, she landed the lead role and became such an effective screamer that her shrieks were actually used to dub other actresses in the film.

Sherry Willis-Burch (Janet) shares her memories of the difficulties in shooting her death scene, as well as her brief small-town fame in her Texas hometown. Willis-Burch, who’s now a 1st grade teacher, jokes that she eventually graduated to the final girl role in the Canadian-lensed KILLER PARTY.

The interviews are relatively brief, but it’s great fun to see these three and share in their fond memories of making FINAL EXAM some 28 odd years after the film’s release.

4 comments:

Jeff Allard said...

Great write-up, Vince! Final Exam is the rare slasher film that I've neer seen, which is funny as I have a real soft spot for college-set slashers. I think I just thought it looked too bottom-of-the-barrel to bother with. I should've known better, though - never underestimate an early '80s slasher movie!

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Ross Horsley said...

"Painfully sincere"... Was there ever a more accurate description of Final Exam?! But I have to admit I'd take a sincere slasher over a parody or cash-in anyday.

Awful Movies said...

There's nobody left to pledge poor Gamma...