Scream Factory treks into the backwoods in search of THE FINAL TERROR with their new Blu-ray/DVD combo.
Too lenient Mike (Mark Metcalf, ANIMAL HOUSE) decides to take his work detail of troubled youths – city boy Cerone (Adrian Zmed, TV's T.J. HOOKER), war-obsessed Zorich (John Friedrich, THE WANDERERS), jokester Boone (Lewis Smith, SOUTHERN COMFORT), and "black guy in a horror movie" Nate (Ernest Harden Jr., WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP) – on a camping and rafting trip with his "right side of the tracks" camp counselor Melanie (Cindy Harrell, NOTHING IN COMMON) and three of her girls: blonde bombshell Windy (Daryl Hannah, SPLASH), posh brunette Margaret (Rachel Ward, NIGHT SCHOOL), and equally posh "black girl in a horror movie" Vanessa (Akosua Busia, THE COLOR PURPLE). "Geeky" camp mechanic/bus driver Eggar (Joe Pantoliano, MEMENTO) is already against Mike giving special treatment to his hoodlums, but becomes even more agitated when he learns that Mike and Melanie have decided to change their itinerary from the well-traveled Wolf Creek to the more unexplored and treacherous North Mill Creek (not too far from the Del Norte Mental Health clinic). At the campfire, Boone regales the campers with the local legend of a girl who went insane after being raped and impregnated by her lumberjack uncle. She was institutionalized and her baby son taken away from her only to return nineteen years later to break her out and hid her in these very woods. The story enrages Eggar who leaves to take the bus down to the river where he will meet them with the rafts. That night, Cerone accompanies Zorich and Nate and is left to stand guard while they hunt for the marijuana crops supposedly tended by gun-toting hippies; but it's really just a hazing ritual. When Cerone is nowhere to be found the next morning, Mike and Melanie go in search of him (and stop off at an idyllic pond for some skinny dipping). When the counselors fail to return, it isn't long before the others realize that something deadly is out there in the woods and they will have to rely on their own limited survival skills to get back to civilization.
Although relatively early in the slasher cycle, there isn't anything new or novel in the scenario other than a refreshing move away from the typical third act body count stalking (although the characters' lives do remain under threat), but the red herrings are effective (and the one that gets quashed early on really might have made for a more effective twist) and there are some chills to be had with the killer's ability to blend into the surroundings (always effectively lensed by director Andrew Davis [THE FUGITIVE] who had previously lensed films like PRIVATE PARTS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED), with the most effective reveal during the climax as a creeping contrast to the otherwise frenzied action of the sequence). There is some additional tension to be had from the group's discovery that their most resourceful member seems to be the most unreliable and unstable. The visual possibilities of the forest location are milked for all they are worth in scenic beauty and eerie atmosphere (not unlike JUST BEFORE DAWN). The original story and screenplay were the work of screenwriting pair Jon George and Neill D. Hicks (ESCAPE 2000, DON'T TALK TO STRANGERS), but it was subsequently polished – who knows to what extent – by Ronald Shusett, who had collaborated with Dan O'Bannon on the original screenplay for what would become Ridley Scott's ALIEN and on Gary Sherman's DEAD & BURIED the same year as THE FINAL TERROR.
The film was finished in 1981 but its low body count made the film a hard sell among the many slashers that year. Just two years later, however, members of the film's young cast had made names for themselves. Zmed was on T.J. HOOKER, Ward was on THE THORN BIRDS, and Hannah had been in BLADE RUNNER (SPLASH and RECKLESS would follow in 1984). Besides the notable cast members – whose presence probably owes somewhat to the scouting of casting director Penny Perry (COCOON, THE STING II) – and future blockbuster director Davis, the film's pedigree extends behind the camera with its producers Samuel Z. Arkoff – his first independent production following his sale of American International – and his future son-in-law Joe Roth, who would form the production company Morgan Creek with James G. Robinson – whose productions included DEAD RINGERS and THE EXORCIST III – and has more recently jumped on the fairytale bandwagon with OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, and MALEFICENT (as well as planned sequels to some of these). The few gore effects on display are the work of Kenny Myers (RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). As far as backwoods slashers go, I would probably rank THE FINAL TERROR below JUST BEFORE DAWN but above DON'T GO IN THE WOODS (amusing as that one is), and way above THE FOREST.
The original negative and intermediate materials for THE FINAL TERROR are believed to be lost, so Scream Factory had to compile the best-looking reels from six prints supplied by collectors. With that in mind, their 1080p24 MPEG-4 1.78:1 widescreen Blu-ray (and 16:9 Blu-ray) looks very good for the most part (and very consistent, presumably with the aid of some digital cleanup), with some flickering, some faint vertical lines, a couple spots, and reel change marks. The night scenes are of course darker and grainier, but nowhere near as impenetrable as the previous unauthorized DVD release (which was likely duped from the equally unpleasant Vestron cassette). The film was photographed with fast lenses, so the wide aperture is probably responsible for the diffuse (yet atmospheric) quality of some shots, especially once the rain comes. Something closer to the negative could have looked more detailed and a bit sharper, but the faults do not appear to be those of the transfer or cleanup. It's certainly the best the film has looked on home video (and that's by a long shot). Opening with the MPAA R-rating card, it is indeed the theatrical version. An alternate version titled CARNIVORE adds two more slashes and a killing blow to Mike's death, but that seems to be the only difference in terms of gore (there's little opportunity for more apart from more indulgent views of the discovered bodies, and the opening tin can lid death scene was a reshoot so Arkoff was likely concerned with adding some violence within the bounds of an R-rating). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is in good condition, with Susan Justin's memorable opening and end title theme. The disc also includes optional English SDH subtitles.
Extras start with an audio commentary by director Andrew Davis, who starts off the commentary having to discuss a scene that he didn't shoot – the prologue – and that producer Roth had to pay him a fee via the director's guild for shooting it without his knowledge (he was in Cannes promoting his first feature STONEY ISLAND, but Roth apparently didn't even mention to him that they were adding a scene) that eventually paid for his wedding. He shot the film under the name Andreas Davidescu (Davis is of Romanian extraction) because he had become a member of the director's guild. He speaks warmly of longtime friend Pantoliano, and also mentions that Hannah was the niece of his mentor cinematographer Haskell Wexler, that Ward had been a model whose photo he discovered on his agent's desk, and Busia (who went to grammar school with Ward in London) was the daughter of the president of Ghana. He also points out that the actress playing Hannah's mother billed as "Donna Pinder" is actually Donna Arkoff who was to marry producer Roth (she herself would produce DreamWork's remake of THE HAUNTING with Jack Arnold's daughter Susan). He is not a horror fan, but he is not off-putting in his discussion of the plot aspects – with a couple unnecessary explanations or some repeated background on the cast when otherwise at a loss – or the shoot (apart from the sex/death scene), but he could have used a moderator. As a former cinematographer, he does focus somewhat on the shot setups and lighting, as well as his love of the location (where George Lucas later shot photographic plates for STAR WARS) which he frequently revisits.
In "Post Terror: Finishing THE FINAL TERROR" (22:58), "Executive in Charge of Post-Production" Allan Holzman – who is upfront about his stuttering, as well as how it has not hindered his ability to communicate with his casts and crews – discusses his start with Roger Corman, adding scenes to his New World productions (including Cirio H. Santiago's FIRECRACKER) before getting to direct FORBIDDEN WORLD. He became associated with THE FINAL TERROR producer Joe Roth through his agent, and was hired to rework THE FINAL TERROR from its original cut. Holzman felt that director Davis lacked perspective since he also shot the film, and that there were picturesque but extraneous bits. He also decided to emphasize the suspense angle since the original cut made it more obvious who the killer was even though the script offered up believable red herrings. He also mentions that the emphasized Pantoliano's scenes because he felt they were some of the strongest. He recalls Arkoff's frustration as a producer being on the other side of the table trying to find a distributor (since at AIP, he knew that filmmakers approaching him had already been to the majors and he had the advantage). He also discusses his association with composer Susan Justin – who he would later marry – whose band he had managed before he brought her on to work on scoring FORBIDDEN WORLD with synthesizer programmer Craig Huxley (ALLIGATOR). Justin discusses working with Huxley on FORBIDDEN WORLD, the instruments he invented and used that she carried over to THE FINAL TERROR, her crash course in film scoring, using her voice as a sound effect in the score, and bringing in her band to record the opening and end title theme.
In "The First Terror" (16:22), actor Zmed and Smith discuss working on THE FINAL TERROR as their feature debuts. Zmed recalls coming off of the Broadway production of GREASE and starring in an unsuccessful sitcom as well as guest spots, and that a young actor having a feature film credit (even a horror film) meant better opportunities in both film and television. Smith had no prior acting experience and attributes the film credit to getting a role in the bigger SOUTHERN COMFORT (of course, IMDb lists that 1981 film as Smith's first credit, but THE FINAL TERROR was shot in 1981 and shelved until 1983). They both recall the initial excitement of working on location until it started raining, how Pantoliano (affectionately nicknamed "Joe Pants") kept the cast entertained, how Roth and Davis had little patience with complaints, and having to do their own stunts (the more experienced Pantoliano was the only performer who had the foresight to clear his area of jagged rocks and other debris before taking his falls). The Blu-ray and DVD also include the film's theatrical trailer (2:17) – giving Ward and Hannah preferential billing over Friedrich who has first billing in the opening credits – as well as a behind the scenes still gallery. (Eric Cotenas)
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