Judge Gordon Sullivan was caught cheating and expelled for improper conduct.
Some may pass the test…God help the rest.
As history slowly marches away from the era of the slasher film (1978-1996), two types of films stand out. The first are the really great slashers like Halloween. These films have stood the test of time, transcending their era to be remembered and cherished by future generations. The others are all those terriblly generic slashers that gave the genre a bad rap like Slumber Party Massacre 2. What gets lost in between are the more average genre entries, the slashers that weren't quite great enough to be treasured, nor bad enough to seer anyone's retina with awfulness. Luckily, we live in the digital age where these forgotten films didn't disappear forever. Case in point, Final Exam, a minor slasher from 1981 given an A+ treatment on Blu-ray.
This is neither a classic, nor satisfying in the "so bad it's good" way. In fact, it's barely a slasher for half the run time. The film opens with a murder in the classic fashion, but then nothing murderish happens for another 45 minutes. Instead, we see a portrait of college life in the early '80s. Then things kick back into gear with a few more kills before everything gets sorted out. That middle stretch is going to be torture for anyone expecting a bloodbath, defying the standard slasher formula of not going more than 10 minutes between kills. There's also not much in the way of gore or sexuality, which again may disappoint potential viewers.
What's interesting about Final Exam is that its weaknesses are also its strength. Though it doesn't satisfy those only looking for the typical slasher formula, it's exactly the kind of film that will interest slasher die-hards. Because the plot doesn't follow the one-kill-per-reel rule, those who have the beats of the slasher memorized will be surprised this time out. That surprise won't be pleasant for everyone, but those willing to indulge in a little bit of genre-melding (since the middle 45 minutes play out like a college romance) will find a slasher doing something different.
Part of the reason Final Exam is doing something different is because it comes fairly early in the life of the slasher. Though it may be towards the end of the first big boom, it shows the genre still finding its feet. The highlights—a definite "hook" (college!), plenty of killing, and a stabby weapon—and the way they're arranged show life are still fluid in slasher-land. That's not a huge deal for the average viewer, but fans well-versed in the genre will find Final Exam is a welcome change of pace.
Finally, the film is an interesting time capsule for 1981. Everything from the fashions to the soundtrack give us an odd little glimpse into college life in the early Reagan years. Whereas the best slashers feel timeless (as do the worst), Final Exam feels tied to its era. This isn't really a criticism, as one of the film's pleasures is to be transported (however briefly) back in time.
For a middling slasher that doesn't have a lot of cult traction, Final Exam has been well served on home video. Shout! Factory's 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded HD transfer comes from the film's original negative, and looks surprisingly good. The negative has a bit of damage here and there but is surprisingly well preserved overall. Detail, though, is strong, with grain handled well. Colors are appropriately saturated without bleeding, and black levels stay pretty consistent and deep. Fans of the film might want to upgrade for the improved visuals. The film's DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track isn't quite as impressive, but still strong. Dialogue is clean and clear, and the film's score sounds surprisingly rich and balanced. Depth and dynamic range aren't up to contemporary standards, but that's hardly the fault of this track.
Extras (ported over the previous DVD release) start with a commentary from stars Sherry Willis-Burch, Cecile Bagdadi and Joel Rice. It's a very active track, with the actors recalling their involvement with the project and what it was like to shoot. They all return for short interview pieces that give a bit more insight into their experiences on the film as well as giving us an update about what they've been doing in the years since the film was released.
Final Exam is a fun, though slightly different, slasher film. It's not the best example of the genre, but above average, largely because it keeps viewers guessing by deviating from the now-standard formulas. Shout! Factory's Blu-ray release improves on the already-excellent DVD release, and fans of the film will want to upgrade for the improved visuals. Everyone else interested in slashers should give it at least a rental.
This one passes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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