Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Lost In The Woods

Year: 1983
Director: Andrew Davis
Cast: John Friedrich, Adrian Zmed, Ernest Harden Jr. 
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Considering how long I've been doing this project, the criteria for something to be a Big Title is pretty low at this point. But nevertheless, The Final Terror is one of them. It's a movie that is constantly brought up in the same conversation as classic "youngsters in the woods" slashers like Friday the 13th and The Burning. Now, I'm no fool. 1981's Just Before Dawn is often brought up in those same conversations, and I was massively underwhelmed by that movie. But when you're staring down the barrel of a bunch of movies that were shot on video and nobody's ever heard of, you'll grasp at any straw sticking out of the dung pile.

So yes, I was excited to check out The Final Terror.

Two guesses how that worked out for me.

We do need a plot to get these particular youngsters into these particular woods, so here it is. A crew of forest rangers from Redwood County have decided to go camping out at Mill Creek with a group of civilian girls for a vacation filled with sexy shenanigans and outdoorsmanship. They are driven there by Eggar (Joe Pantoliano!), who has been roped into being their chauffeur despite the fact that he's not invited to actually camp with them, he hates them all, and they all hate him.

The campers all display a staggeringly varied set of vivid and layered personalities. There's Mike (Mark Metcalf, the father from the "We're Not Gonna Take It" music video and also he was in Animal House or whatever), who's kind of the ringleader; Melanie (Cindy Harrell), who is his girlfriend; Nathaniel (Ernest Harden Jr.), who is Black; Vanessa (Akosua Busia, who only had to wait a couple years to get out of the slasher muck when she appeared in The Color Purple), who is also Black and miraculously not automatically coupled up with Nathaniel; Windy (Daryl Hannah, like, the Daryl Hannah), who has beaded braids like she just got back from a Caribbean vacation; Zorich (John Friedrich), who is just a little psychotic and obsessed with survivalism; Marco (Adrian Zmed), who isn't part of the ranger crew and is kind of a third wheel; Margaret (Rachel Ward of Night School) who is a girl who exists; and Boone (Lewis Smith), who is a guy who exists, or at least that's what the credits tell me.

The campfire story that inevitably turns out to be true and right behind you holding a knife is this: years ago, in these very woods, a woman was molested by her uncle and had a kid after being institutionalized. Now she lurks around the woods defending her territory.

And really, what IS more sinister than the victim of a sex crime?

One thing that I never expected was a film that I would like even less than Just Before Dawn, but life loves to throw us curveballs. The Final Terror is a top-down failure on every level I can think of, which is shocking considering the sheer amount of qualified people with actual careers that have gathered to make this film (in addition to the cast full of familiar faces, I haven't yet mentioned director Andrew Davis - of The Fugitive! - or producer Samuel Z. Arkoff - of The Amityville Horror, Dressed to Kill, It Conquered the World, and so on).

Let's take a look at the acting first. Joe Pantoliano doesn't embarrass himself, though his character is assembled from nothing but scraps of manic, contradictory doggerel. But everyone else ranges from bland to shrill, and no higher. Strangely, the reliably vacant Rachel Ward gives one of the best performances here, perhaps because at least two other cast members also share her "dead-eyed and inexplicably British" performance style and both of them are worse. 

Also failing us is the score, the main theme of which was inspired by Billy Idol's "White Wedding" (this is not a joke), except for when it randomly wings a naked Friday the 13th rip-off into the mix in one random moment. As is the cinematography, which will rouse itself occasionally with a fun, capable camera move or canted angle, but mostly just struggles to distinguish the outlines of the poorly lit characters from the poorly lit trees surrounding them.

I would get down on my knees and weep with gratitude whenever the sun rose.

The thing that is super special about the slasher genre is that it can survive all kinds of flaws as long as it throws in some creative kills with half-decent blood. Guess what The Final Terror doesn't have? I don't even know where to start with the list of ways this film fails as a slasher, but here goes. (SPOILERS abound for the rest of the review)

Of the giant victim pool this film provides for us, which comfortably sits at 9, only three of them die. Three. We get to spend time with six whole characters who neither separate themselves as distinct personalities nor have the decency to expire and rid us of the burden of having to deal with them. The film is so anemic with kills that they had to do reshoot to shove two more random deaths in the intro, or else people wouldn't have known it was a slasher at all. Plus, there's a handful of scenes that promise to lead to kills, then inexplicably pull back at the last moment. Indeed, the character Marco gets two of these scenes, the first when he vanishes after being abandoned in the middle of the woods on the first night, and the second when he is unsuccessfully garroted with a rope.

The kills we do get commit the two worst sins of slasher murders: most of them take place offscreen, and the ones that don't are very nonspecific (ie. knife slashes somewhere, blood smears everywhere, nobody is sure what actually happened). Instead of these campers being picked off one by one, we're just forced to watch them bicker with one another in survivalist scenarios as the men become increasingly less shirtless the further we get into the run time (the opening scenes were promising a Girls Nite Out level of unmotivated barechested men, which would have knocked the movie up the scale at least one extra point).

The experience of watching The Final Terror is more akin to sitting through a barely tolerated acquaintance's Instagram stories about their camping trip than a bona fide slasher film. At least the film accurately recreated a survival scenario, given the way my note taking quickly devolved into stuff like, "It's been 80 minutes, no sign of anything interesting."

Killer: Eggar (Joe Pantoliano) and his mom (Anthony Maccario)
Final Girl: Pretty much everyone
Best Kill: The only kill that is in any way inventive, even if there aren't any actual gore effects involved, is the moment where Lori springs a trap that sends two tree branches covered in sharp tin can lids flying into her face. 
Sign of the Times: The film was shot in 1981, but shelved until 1983, when producers decided they had to capitalize on the rising star of... Adrian Zmed.
Scariest Moment: The campers are hiding in the bus when the killer starts smashing the windows from the outside with an axe.
Weirdest Moment: The killer dresses Melanie in a cute little Steve Irwin hat before throwing her body onto the raft with the other campers.
Champion Dialogue: "What the hell do you think they're gonna do out there in the woods with girls, huh? Pray?!"
Body Count: 7

    1. Jimmy has his throat slit (probably) offscreen.
    2. Lori is hit with that classic branch/tin can lid trap offscreen.
    3. Mike is macheted in the back mid-coitus.
    4. Melanie is killed offscreen.
    5. Zorich has his ankle hooked by a blade and falls to his death.
    6. Eggar is beaten to death.
    7. Eggar's Mom is impaled on a spiky log trap.

TL;DR: The Final Terror is a movie seemingly tailored to draw out your disappointment for as excruciatingly long as possible.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1357

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