Monday, August 25, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Back to Skull

Year: 1981
Director: Jimmy Huston
Cast: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, Ralph Brown
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Today is a day that will live in infamy. Even I, the curator of terrors that I am, can only face my impending fate with grim horror... School is starting back up again.

To cushion the blow I've decided to bestow upon you all an entire week of college-themed slasher movies. For those of you sitting around waiting to print your syllabus in the library, I hope this soothes your troubled souls. For those of you with diplomas already framed on your walls, I hope this will help you look back fondly on times past and appreciate your health. For those of you in high school or below, let this be a warning. And for those of you who never went to college, congratulations. You might just survive this week.

Our first subject is 1981's Final Exam, straight from the mind of writer-director Jimmy Huston, who promptly went on to do not much of anything else. It's a darn-tootin' shame, though, because his creation is one of the more interesting slasher offerings in a year filled to the brim with them.

And, surprisingly, not for the reasons you'd think, knowing my penchant for saucy captions and all.

Final Exam takes place in the last week of the semester at picturesque Lanier College. As the students study their butts off, a menacing killer knocks off a couple at a nearby school's Make Out Point. This scene already differentiates itself from typical slasher fare by the added dimension of the killer ripping his way through the cloth roof of a convertible. It's not much, but hey, the slasher is an enormously rigid genre and any small divergence from form is as rare as a successful album from a winner of The Voice.

Speaking of voice, Final Exam is notable for the way it enhances its characters and situations beyond the typical stock scenarios. Whereas in most slashers, the humans populating the film act as one-dimensional knife cushions, this film uses its characters to paint a rich tableau of college life, only reluctantly becoming anything resembling a body count picture near the abrupt finale. In most films (cough cough Killer Party cough), this would feel like a waste of time, but here it's a blessing, allowing us to fully occupy the world of these people and have them wiggle their way into our hearts before all the slashing and gashing begins in earnest.

Our meat this time around (I'm not even capitalizing the word, that's how much I believe in these characters) are Mark (John Fallon), the ringleader of the Gamma Delta fraternity and an overwhelmingly colossal douche - an impossibly titanic, orifice-cleansingly douchey douche, the type of guy who would stage a machine gun-toting terrorist attack on campus to get out of a test (yes, this does happen and no, this would not fly in 2014); Radish (Joel S. Rice), a cocky poindexter who is obsessed with the macabre; Wildman (Ralph Brown), a homoerotically-repressed Neanderthal who acts as Mark's muscle; Gary (Terry W. Farren), a spineless pledge who gets himself mixed up in things far too easily and who, after giving away his pin, finds his junk becoming the unwilling recipient of the world's first #icebucketchallenge; Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, also of - ahem - Killer Party), a girl who falls in love like you fall asleep - every damn night - and clings on to Gary like he's the last life preserver on the Titanic; Lisa (DeAnna Robbins), a pretty young thing who uses her looks to get her what she needs - like an A from the lusty chemistry professor; and Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi), a down-to-earth girl who spends most of her time in her dorm studying or playing Solitaire and thus inadvertently becomes our Final Girl by dint of not being around when the important things are happening.

Very important things.

For the bulk of the run time, the story is driven completely by the escapades of these characters and - against all known laws of physical science - this is the best possible scenario for the film. Their plots and subplots collide and interconnect, providing an engaging throughline with a solid ensemble. And once the killing actually begins, you begin to root for your favorite characters. The fact that their deaths are brutal but not particularly bloody (think more Psycho than Silent Scream) means that you are hit with the impact and don't even mind the lack of gore because the film is providing you something else to chew on.

That alone is more than enough to make Final Exam a lost gem in the genre, but toss in an especially strong visual style and you've got yourself a lifelong fan in Brennan. The brutality of the death sequences is accomplished through strong stylistic flourishes and, in some cases, inexplicably gorgeous cinematography and lighting. Most notable is a face-off between Wildman and the Killer (Timothy L. Raynor) in the gymnasium, a hauntingly poetic composition with an impeccable balance between light and shadow that creates a stirring sense of menace.

This really makes me glad I never go to the gym.

Unfortunately, rather than saving the best for last, Final Exam hands off all its goodwill to its two biggest liabilities, the Killer and the Final Girl. Neither character is as complex or appealing as Courtney's formerly intact classmates and their showdown takes some of the air out of the movie until another character sees fit to intervene.

Katniss Everdeen's long-lost father, pictured here in 1981.

The Killer is just some dude with no motive, name, or personality, mindlessly slashing up a college campus because it was 1981 and that was just the thing to do back then. His physicality is impressive, especially in the body count sequences, but there's no reveal whatsoever and the finale lacks bite because of it.

Courtney is another blank slate, alternating between Laurie Strodeian levels of Final Girl incompetence and Tommy Jarvis pedal-to-the-metal fury. Luckily she shifts to attack mode often enough to help the uneven climax limp across the finish line, but her Katharine McPhee dixie cup blandness puts a damper on the overall mood of the film.

But other than the sputtering climax, Final Exam is a force to be reckoned with. I usually prefer a little more gore in my slashers, but I'm not one to turn down a good story, no way no how. This film reminds me of the fantastic He Knows You're Alone in the way that it paints a group of human beings one can really care about rather than butchering a herd of caricatures.

The embarrassing denouement prevents me from giving higher praise, but Final Exam is a unique, at times visually-challenging slasher film that reminds me why I started this project in the first place.

Killer: The Killer (Timothy L. Raynor)
Final Girl: Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi)
Best Kill: Wildman is choked with a cord attached to a weight machine.
Sign of the Times: When Courtney plays Solitaire, she uses actual real life cards.
Scariest Moment: The Killer accosts Wildman in the dark gymnasium.
Weirdest Moment: Wildman begins kissing Gary's neck and licking his ear after bear hugging him following a successful prank. But, you know, in a manly way.
Champion Dialogue: "Ducks don't swim at night. Their headlights short circuit in the water."
Body Count: 11
  1. Claire's Boyfriend is hacked to death.
  2. Claire is killed offscreen.
  3. Gary is stabbed to death.
  4. Janet is killed offscreen.
  5. Wildman is strangled to death with a weight machine cord. 
  6. Mark is stabbed in the chest. 
  7. Radish has his head smashed through a door.
  8. Mitch is killed offscreen.
  9. Lisa is stabbed to death.
  10. Coach is stabbed in the chest with an arrow.
  11. The Killer is stabbed to death. 
TL;DR: Final Exam has a good head on its shoulders, depicting realistic characters with a strong visual style.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1324


  1. It really tickles my barnacles to know that you're enjoying back to school week by doing what you do best.

  2. Good luck with the coming academic year, B. And study hard! I need someone to explain to me how they even did the lighting in that shot. It's pretty sweet.