“Some may pass the test…God help the rest” promises the tagline for Motion Picture Marketing’s slasher FINAL EXAM, back on DVD from Scorpion Releasing as part of their new “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line, hosted by former WWE star Katarina Leigh Waters.
During final exam week, Lanier College is rocked by a violent school shooting perpetrated by machine gun-touting masked assailants who round up the bodies and drive off with them in a van. Diligent, crime-obsessed, nerd Radish (Joel S. Rice) copies down the license number and alerts the police. When the sheriff (Sam Kilman, RETURN TO MACON COUNTY) learns that the van belonged to jock Wildman (Ralph Brown), he and fellow Gamma preppy frat guy Mark (John Fallon) – who used the diversion to cheat on his exam – get in trouble for orchestrating the prank. Meanwhile, final girl Courtney (Cecil Bagdadi) is stressing over exams, Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, KILLER PARTY) is annoyed that her boyfriend Gary (Terry Farren) is more interested in joining the Gammas than their budding relationship, and lovely Lisa (DeAnna Robbins, TEXAS GODFATHER) has arranged an assignation with Professor Reynolds (Don Hepner) in the art studio. In this atmosphere of grueling tests, elaborate pranks, hazing, and inappropriate teacher-student relationships, a hulking killer (Timothy W. Raynor) is able to move about the campus and pick off random coeds and horny faculty.
The film opens with an overlong sequence in which a couple making out in a car are murdered by a knife-wielding killer. After that, it spends about an hour establishing the characters’ relationship with one another (who we hate, who we’re supposed to like) before the killer finally gets to his rampage. While slasher films generally spend a stretch of the film setting up characters to be killed, the better ones at least remember to build up an atmosphere of menace with a mix of false scares, sightings of the killer’s lurking presence (by the camera and the heroine), and a helping of nudity (both for the sake of titillation and for enhanced vulnerability, especially for a false scare). The closest thing we get to a false scare is the unattributed prank of a book falling off the top of a closet door. What we get here is about 20 minutes of exposition – introducing characters, mapping out the locations for later, setting up where characters are planning to be later where they can be targeted – doubled in place of the more parsed out stalk and kill scenes. The film picks up during the last 20 minutes, but Bagdadi’s Courtney seems to have been picked at random as the final girl. Granted, she is the more diligent and less sexually-active of the three main girls, but Radish is more conventionally aware – in a slasher film sense – of the real or imagined warning signs of impending doom. He isn’t exactly a precursor of Jamie Kennedy’s SCREAM character – he’s obsessed with serial killers and random acts of violence rather than horror movies – but he knows that killings do not always need a motivation; and that is what distinguishes the killer from those in other slasher films. Commentaries and interviews on other slasher film DVDs usually refer to drug references and political incorrectness when the participants remark “You couldn’t do this today,” but FINAL EXAM’s opening prank is certainly something that would not go over well in this age where tragic school shootings are considered “domestic terrorism” (although, perhaps, only if the perpetrators are geeks rather than jocks). It was a fairly surprising scene when I first saw the film on VHS (post-Columbine); in the commentary, producer Myron Meisel points out that the squib hits for the fake deaths in this scene are more elaborate than the effects for the real killings. Indeed, only two of the killings deviates from the usual stalk-and-stab method (and only one of which is performed with any real visual panache), and only one of those creatively so.
Previously released on DVD by BCI in an anamorphic widescreen edition that quickly went out of print, Scorpion has created a new high definition master for their DVD for their “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” line release. I have not seen the BCI release (like others, I waited to acquire it and found that it had gone out of print), but the new HD transfer is gorgeous and the mono sound (reportedly poor on the BCI edition) is in good condition (the dialogue is clear and the music comes across nicely throughout). The German-born Waters introduces the film, provides closing remarks, and also moderates the aforementioned commentary track with producer Meisel. The film’s ad campaign was created first so that the film could be tailored to suit Motion Picture Marketing’s exploitation needs. Reportedly MPM’s executives told Meisel and writer/director Jimmy Houston (MY BEST FRIEND IS A VAMPIRE) that the script could contain anything they wanted so long as every scene was something that had previously appeared in at least two other successful examples of the genre. With production services provided by Earl Owensby the entire project was conceived and completed in roughly six months. Owensby seems to have enjoyed more success as a North Carolina studio owner – his studio was used by James Cameron to shoot THE ABYSS – than a filmmaker (Jerry Rushing, who played the coach in FINAL EXAM, also appeared in the Owensby-produced period horror film A DAY OF JUDGMENT and THE DOGS OF HELL, both shot by FINAL EXAM assistant cameraman Irl Dixon). Early on in the shoot, the actors imbibed a lot of their Jack Daniels product placement and partied hard at night. Meisel and Houston curbed their behavior by actually showing the actors how they looked in the rushes after a night of partying. The “Wildman” character was based on MPM’s money-man John Chambliss – in fact, we learn that Wildman’s real name is John Chambliss Jr. – whose ego apparently cost them some valuable shooting time in one instance; however, Meisel tells Waters that it was more enjoyable to kill off the even less sympathetic Mark character.
The film was largely shot in sequence so that the actors would leave after they were killed off. Due to the number of cast injuries (Brown nearly lost consciousness during his death scene, Burch was injured when she was pulled out of frame by the killer, an extra during the shooting sequence hurt his back when he was thrown into the van, etc), Meisel had some trepidation about inexperienced actor/stunt coordinator Raynor performing the climactic stunt work himself and paid a professional stuntman out of his own pocket to do the scene. The executive producers’ intent was to attract a younger teen audience with an almost PG-level slasher (or very soft R). Meisel mentions that the nudity in the film’s trailer was a hook that was intentionally showed more than the coverage of the same bit in the film. This, of course, backfired and the same people who complained graphic violence in other slasher films here criticized the dearth of exploitable content. When the film was submitted to the MPAA, MPM was afraid that they would end up getting a PG rating (remember, this was before the PG-13 rating, so teenagers with or without “parental guidance” were apt to encounter toplessness even in family fare like NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION) instead of an R. They were surprised to learn that the MPAA planned to give it an X-rating for violence and had to trim back the finale. Meisel is very prepared with his remarks, but Waters still provides some prompting questions and they have a good rapport. There are one or two points where Meisel asks Waters if she has any questions for him, but we can hardly blame her since Meisel she was probably just as rapt as we are listening to his account.
The BCI DVD also featured an audio commentary with the three aforementioned actors that has sadly not been carried over to this edition (so owners of the BCI disc will want to hang onto it); however, brief interviews with actors Cecil Bagdadi (3:26), Joel S. Rice (6:30), and Sherry Willis Burch (4:41) recorded for the BCI disc have been carried over here. Bagdadi’s audition consisted of screaming, and her scream was such that the filmmakers had her also dub the screams of the other actresses. Rice was in California for college and had to head back to the West coast twice for auditions while driving cross-country back home to Boston before landing the role. MPM signed him to a three-picture deal which, of course, did not pan out (Rice became a social worker for a time and then became a TV producer). Burch was working for MPM while studying acting at UCLA and was cast without an audition. The film’s trailer (1:30) rounds out the related extras. Trailers for HUMONGOUS, THE DEVIL WITHIN HER (the Joan Collins EXORCIST rip-off, not the Juliet Mills EXORCIST rip-off), NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT (with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (previously released barebones by Elite and then in a special edition by Liberty that quickly went out of print), THE INCUBUS (also previously released by Elite), and THE PYX. A promo reel (2:10) runs after the closing credits for the Katarina’s Nightmare Theater playback option and it includes clips from the aforementioned trailers as well as few more surprise releases, including Norman J. Warren’s TERROR and SATAN’S SLAVE (both previously released by BCI, the latter in a chopped-up print), as well as SATAN’S BLOOD (previously released by Mondo Macabro), and HUMAN EXPERIMENTS (originally meant to be a Code Red release). (Eric Cotenas)
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