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Back in September, I went on opening night to see SORORITY ROW, a silly remake of a just-as-silly 1980s slasher. I really don’t like slashers in general, so why this lame remake inspired me, I’ll never know. But inspire it did, and I set myself to the task of reviewing a bunch of slashers, the first round of which were school-based. Several months later, I stopped stalling and actually committed myself to following through on it (hey, I told you I can’t stand slashers). Below is the second in this series of reviews.
Maybe it was the title. When a movie bears the name FINAL EXAM, it can play with a lifelong teacher’s memory, remind him fondly of those end-of-course evaluations. It had to be the title, because I had only seen the film once, a few months back; my general impression, as I dove headlong into school-set slashers last September, was that this was one of the easier to swallow entries, more believable and in turn better than the rest of the crop.
But memory can be fickle, and it reared its ugly head last night. Just as I pressed play, the full formed memory hit like a lightning bolt: FINAL EXAM was the slasher flick with the terrorists firing on the school’s quad full of students. The realization dredged up accompanying thoughts: The attack did not belong in a slasher at all. The underlying reason for the attack, when revealed, is even more preposterous than the attack itself. The scene leads to the subsequent introduction of characters fresh off the Generic Stereotype Generator, including: the bumbling, inquisitive Cop; the even more bumbling, incompetent Campus Security Guard; and the Coach who wears the Gray Sweat Suit and the Blue Baseball Cap. These scenes are so out of place, they seem to have come from a different movie.
Minus that bizarre distraction, the rest of FINAL EXAM plays out mostly to form. The initial scene presents a couple in a car, making out. We know they are going to die, because this is a slasher, and couples making out in cars always die in slashers, especially when they start the film. But wait. They’re students on another campus, which makes their killings totally random and unrelated to the rest of the film. But then every killing is random in the film, because the killer’s incentive is never made clear. At film’s end, his identity isn’t even evident. He is the Slasher Without Motive, the rarest of all killers in the slasher realm. This led me to speculate: Was he a disgruntled victim of financial aid withdrawal? A canned professor? Some bewildered former Vietnam vet who never made the most of his GI Bill? He could be any, all or none of these, and this is a major flaw in the film.
But there had to be greater reason for me to remember the film fondly than the title, right? As I watched a second time, it dawned on me quickly. Unlike most slashers, FINAL EXAM takes the time to establish characters, and make them likeable. Most notably, the leads Radish and Courtney are amiable and real. The fact that they’re portrayed by first-time actors makes the performances, and their unrequited romance, naturalistic, so it’s easy to root for them. The film focuses more on them and their fellow students than the murders. Sure, this means there’s a long span without killings, which may bore the gore hounds. And the kills themselves aren’t even that bloody, truth be told. But they’re fairly creative, and writer/director Jimmy Huston uses some great campus locations that ground the film in reality. The dorm, the gym and the quad are dangerous places, as night falls. The best set piece is the bell tower, where the final confrontation takes place. It’s well done, and unlikely to disappoint.
The extras shouldn’t let the film’s fans down either. The most prominent is the commentary. Moderated by the New Beverly Theatre’s programmer Julie Marchese and Darren Miller from someplace called Rock World, the track also includes actors Cecile Bagdadi, Sherry Willis-Burch and Radish himself, Joel S. Rice. The three are, like their characters, likeable as they share some moderately entertaining back stories (after every kill was filmed, the cast sang Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust. Now that’s cool). The problem here is Miller and Marchese. They act like Fanboy and Fangirl, boasting some wildly ridiculous claims, such as how the film is among the top five slashers of all time (come on now, seriously?). Listen to Marchese’s unfounded theory that the killer is really a set of twins, as she repeats it ad nauseam. The track would have run better if it had not been moderated.
There are also short interviews with the three actors, filmed at the time of the commentary’s recording. The questions show up on a black background, followed by a pause before the actor answers them. This is a stiff way of doing things that I don’t prefer at all. Though the interviews are interesting, they’re just extended versions of issues covered in the commentary. If you omit them, you won’t miss much. Finally, there are trailers for FINAL EXAM and four other horror flicks. Nothing too thrilling here.
My final analysis of FINAL EXAM is this: stick it out through the silliness of the unfitting terrorist attack and a few other outlandish scenes, and there’s some stuff to like in the film. It’s competently made, and contains some affable characters who find themselves in peril in some craftily employed set pieces. Does it pass the test as one of the greatest slashers of all time? No. It won’t make anybody forget the likes of Michael Myers, but it’s not a terrible way to kill an evening if you tire of Haddonfield and Crystal Lake. Maybe I’ll remember that next time I pull it off the shelf.
–Phil Fasso
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