‘It’s happening…the psychopaths are here!’
Final Exam is a delightful coming of age movie set on the last day of high school. Our colourful cast of characters includes nerdy Radish, (smart mouth and obsessed with serial killers) and Courtney, the shy girl he has a crush on. Courtney badly needs some product in her hair, but not as badly as chief jock Mark, who’s hair looks like a bird’s nest that fell from a tree and landed on his head. And let’s not forget Wildman, the campus asshole who’s really not as bad as he seems. Sure, he knocks Radish’s books out his hands, but everyone laughs like it’s just a bit of good-natured fun.
Wildman lives up to his name by pulling probably the stupidest prank in history – a staged high school shooting. This would probably not be okay today, but in 1981, things were different. Then there’s Gary – oh sweet, silly Gary – who falls in love with bubble brained Janet and faces a cruel hazing from Wildman and the rest of the fraternity. Yup, student life in Final Exam is jam-packed with crazy hi-jinks. Then, with thirty minutes to go, it turns into the slasher movie you thought you were getting.
Final Exam is often ridiculed as being one of the low points of the whole slasher cycle, but in the right frame of mind I think it’s one of the most fun. Okay, so apart from an opening double murder, there’s no slashing for nearly an hour, but that never hurt Halloween, did it? Maybe Halloween is not a good reference point.
I can totally understand why slasher purists dislike this movie, up to a point. The characters are generally very likeable, to the point where I was genuinely sad to see some of them die, and it’s not often I can look someone in the eye and make that claim. I mean come on, Radish even has a Toolbox Murders poster on his bedroom wall. If Radish was real, he would totally be reading this blog. Hi Radish!
This is not to say that the film fails as a slasher though. The opening kill is weird and impressive, with the killer dragging some jerk out of his car and stabbing him repeatedly, while the camera pans over his corpse to focus on his girlfriend’s screaming face.
Let’s talk about the killer. Wearing jeans and with a terrible bowl haircut, we never find out who he is, which is unusual, but it doesn’t bother me in the least. Why should it? There’s a dropped line about a sorority pledge who killed herself the year before, so if the lack of backstory annoys you, just pretend that the killer is her brother, seeking revenge. Feel better now?
Anyway, the killings continue, and there’s an occasionally artful shot to liven things up, like a slow pan out from Gary and his dumb tree, or Wildman alone in the gym lit only by a scoreboard. My favourite moment has to be when the killer jumps out of a dustbin to make a kill. How long had he been in there waiting for someone to walk past? Dude, you need better hiding places. Or does he? It worked, after all. Maybe I would just make a terrible killer, hiding under beds and behind curtains when I should be lurking in a bin.
The final chase scene is surprisingly exciting, and everything falls into place with a remarkably fortuitous arrival of a peripheral character armed with a bow and arrow. In any other film, it would be a forehead slapping moment, but in the context of Final Exam, you’re just like, ‘yeah, it totally makes sense that the coach turns up at the school in the middle of the night, drunk and armed.’ Among the run of generic early 80s slasher movies, Final Exam stands out by doing everything wrong, but in the right way. And that’s surely better than doing everything right but in the wrong way, no?