"People are killed every day for no reason at all," the nebbish, heart-on-his-sleeve Radish (Joel S. Rice) tells classmate Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) in "Final Exam." A horror buff whose dorm room walls are adorned with one-sheets for splatter flicks like 1978's "The Toolbox Murders," he believes himself to be well-versed in the psychology of sociopaths who one day simply snap and go on murdering sprees with no particular motive or target in sight. He is unaware how prophetic his words are about to become. As North Carolina's Lanier College gradually empties out as finals week nears its end, a knife-wielding lunatic (Timothy L. Raynor) with no identified name, background or identity has shown up on campus. As he lurks in shadows and on rooftops, staircases and walkways, he methodically prepares for his moment to pounce.
"Final Exam" opened theatrically in June 1981, dead-center in the midst of the early-'80s slasher craze influenced by the wildly popular success of an unassuming low-budget 1978 thriller called "Halloween
." If writer-director Jimmy Huston was exploiting a cultural zeitgeist, what he chose not to do was make a film that in and of itself was exploitative. Trading the increasingly graphic violence of the era for lonesome foreboding and an inviting attention to character, Huston's picture has something that the vast majority of titles from this subgenre lacked: personality. It is a modest production with a fair amount of nonprofessionals in the cast, and the narrative is by no means free and clear of clichésthe final girl, for example, is still a virginal figure, cute in a girl-next-door way yet studious and unthreateningbut it becomes exceedingly obvious all the same that an attempt was made to separate it from the glut of similar body-count fare inundating the marketplace at the time.
At the idyllic lakeside March College, a boy (Shannon Norfleet) and girl (Carol Capka) sit in a parked car just as night has fallen. She wants to hear that he loves her. He is reluctant to say this particular four-letter word, but eventually coaxes her into the backseat for a make-out session. Suddenly, a hulking figure neither of them know tears off the couple's convertible top and attacks. It is a scene glimpsed many times before, but as the story proper relocates to nearby Lanier College, the blunt brutality of this opening transitions to what more closely resembles a co-ed comedy complete with hijinks on the quad and jestful hazing rituals. A gag in which the fraternity brothers put on masks and simulate a sniper rampage might have seemed relatively quaint and harmless in the dawn of the 1980s, but many decades removed from this it carries with it a sinister quality that, were it to occur in the twenty-first century, would put the whole lot of them in jail. A reference to the mass shooting perpetrated by Charles Whitman from Austin's University of Texas bell tower in August 1966 gives this first-act interlude a certain social awareness, even if it is still amusing to see how attitudes were so lax and naïve at the time of the movie's filming.
The heroine of the story is Courtney, a thoughtful student who confides in pal Radish about the uncertainty of their post-education futures and her misgivings toward how easily physical knockouts like roommate Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) have it. She likes Lisa, but also sees how effortlessly she can manipulate others to get what she wants. Average folks like Courtney and Radish must work for what they get, and the private conversations these two share hold a truthfulness not normally made time for in slasher pics of this nature. Courtney is portrayed by Cecile Bagdadi, a charismatic performer with no film or television credits prior to or after this film. Although she chose not to pursue a longer-lasting acting career, there is a soulful sincerity to her presence that gifts the role exactly what it needs. For his memorable part as Radish, Joel S. Rice (who would later go on to become a successful producer) essays one of the more winning onscreen "nerds" in filmic teendom. That the script treats him not as a joke, but as a sympathetic and intelligent figure who is more or less friendly and accepted by the more popular students is a change of pace that works in its favor. Radish probably doesn't have a shot with Courtneywhen he gets the courage to tell her she is pretty, he is at once embarrassed that he would go through with such an admission and proud of himself that he didbut their friendship will be a lasting one. Or, at least it would if there wasn't a maniac closing in on them.
The first hour of "Final Exam" takes its time, acquainting the viewer with the characters so that it means more when they start meeting their sudden demises in the last thirty minutes. Ralph Brown is unctuous in the extreme as blond-shagged Gamma Delta lunkhead Wildman, giving it his all and overacting as a result, but the rest of the participants are worth spending time with and generally pleasant. Sherry Willis-Burch is a particular scene-stealer as Janet, a starry-eyed sorority girl stressed over her burgeoning relationship with frat pledge Gary (Terry W. Farren). When Courtney notices that she is not her normal cheery self, Janet sincerely replies, "I'm still happy, it's just that I'm depressed!" Mary Ellen Withers is amusing in her handful of scenes as fellow student Elizabeth, though it is tough to say whether it was an intentional choice to make her offbeat and exasperated, or if these things stem from inexperience. No matter, it fits the film, right down to a bizarre moment where she blatantly picks a wedgie in the middle of a scene.
In "Final Exam," one cannot help but wish there was more mystery in the way the killer is photographed, but his lack of a mask or costume also grants the proceedings a realistic edginess. Subtly showing up in the background of shot compositions is undoubtedly an ode to John Carpenter's "Halloween
," but director Jimmy Huston stages these moments well. A basketball scoreboard, a gymnasium locker, a kitchen dumbwaiter, and the wooded gothic architecture of the school are additionally put to inspired use, as is cinematographer Darrell Cathcart's handsome, frequently ominous framing. Not unlike the oddly empty Haddonfield Memorial Hospital in 1981's "Halloween II
," Lanier College clears out by the finale, all the better to stage a chase set-piece without other pesky humans getting in the way. In a bold move, "Final Exam" does not end with a big revelation about who the killer is, or why he has committed such heinous crimes against people he didn't know. There is no detectable grudge he has been holding against anyone, or, if there is, it remains locked inside his own twisted mind. Some viewers may accuse the film of copping out, or being lazy. It isn't. Huston puts too much care into every other detail for this to be a case of cutting corners. Sometimes there really are no answers to be found when tragedy strikes and innocent lives are ultimately cut short.