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Details

Director: Jimmy Huston
Cast: , and 
Year: 1981
Length: 89 min
Rating: R
Region: A
Disks: 1
Label: Shout! Factory
Release Date: May 13, 2014

Video

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Type: Color

Audio

Audio: English: LPCM 2.0

Extras
  • Interviews with cast members Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch
  • Audio commentary with cast members Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch
  • Original theatrical trailer

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finaexam_bluIn 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween hit theatres, forever changing the landscape of horror cinema. Re-envisioning the role of the killer, Carpenter created an archetype that, for the most part, still resonates as loud as ever. Halloween’s impact can be seen on its influence of a series of films that follow, apart from just the slew of sequels. One film, in particular, that owes a significant debt to Halloween is Final Exam (1981). Final Exam was director Jimmy Huston’s only true horror film, amongst a small body of work, most popular of which is probably his 1987 comedy, My Best Friend is a Vampire. For all its faults, and there are many, Final Exam is an extremely interesting slasher for numerous reasons, most of which involve its treatment of the killer. While, as already mentioned, there are plenty of ways that Final Exam resembles Halloween, it is in the ways that it departs from the slasher genre that Final Exam remains relevant. Only six years from the first dvd-release of the film, Shout! Factory has re-issued the film for fans alike, giving the film its first high-definition presentation, and one that doesn’t detract from the low-budget aesthetic.

Film

Opening amidst a passionate scene between two college lovers, Final Exam’s beginning places it well within the conventions of the canonical slasher pictures. However, it is also in the beginning that Huston begins to distance himself from the style of his peers. With the first killing, appearing within the first few minutes, two important distinctions are made. First, Huston distances the audience from the scenes of violence. It is not uncommon for the camera to cut to a farther angle, or to cut away altogether, during the most intense scenes of violence. Second, and most important, the audience is immediately faced with the reality that the killer makes no attempt to disguise himself. Even though it is slightly hidden by shadows, we are offered a few shots that depict the killer’s face in the first moments. Despite all the ways that the film is clearly influenced by Carpenter’s Myers, the unmasking of the killer is a significant break, one that allows the film to present something new to the slasher genre.

A scene from Jimmy Huston's Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

A scene from Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

The film incorporates some interesting visual elements. One scene, in particular, that stands out features the camera breaking from its focus, only to enter a kitchen-elevator and propel forward into the cafeteria. The shot appears completely unmotivated. It cannot be a POV shot, as no character could conceivably fit into the spaces, but still seems to add to the voyeuristic feel of the film. Capturing a sense of ‘watching at a distance’ is what Huston does best, featuring a heightened voyeuristic drive. It comes as no surprise that Huston’s career was short-lived, because while many of the shots feature fantastic composition, many fail to add to the overall story.

As has been noted by many fans, and by the cast in the interviews featured in the special features, the film was more interested in the character development of the victims than it was in developing the killer. This is perhaps overstated. It would be wrong to say that the film features no character development, but the development that it does include is fairly unimportant. We learn what a few characters want to pursue in life, but ultimately the film rests on stereotypical archetypes in forming its characters. The nerds, the frats, and the hyper-sexualized co-eds: all the typical characters you’d expect are present. In addition, the film doesn’t do much, if anything to move beyond these types. They are important guides in developing the narrative. Instead of praising the attention the film supposedly pays to developing the characters, it would seem more fitting to highlight how the film actively avoids development. By the film’s conclusion, it is clear that the identity of the killer is meaningless. Where it has become necessary for films working within the slasher genre to revolve the entire film around uncovering the identity of the killer, Final Exam emerges as original in its complete lack of interest in this process. The disguising of the killer is through visual means but through purely narrative ones. It is a mystery that is never solved. This is the most challenging aspect of the film, one that has been the source of a lot of criticism from slasher/horror fanatics. Feeling that the rejection of the masked killer trope removes the tension that forms the basis for these films, many fans have felt that the film is lacking. It may not be the most terrifying horror film out there, but it is one that challenges its viewers. Of course, Final Exam will never top the best-of lists, but is nonetheless an important and entertaining viewing experience.

Jimmy Huston's Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Video

Final Cut was a low budget film and carries that look. The color is slightly washed out, the picture isn’t perfectly crisp, and there are noticeable moments where dust and scratches are present. Never gaining immense success, it surprising to see that the print was kept as intact as it was, and overall Shout! Factory did a splendid job presenting the film in the best manner that they could. There are no attempts to sharpen the picture digitally; leaving very much an authentic representation of what a 35mm projection of the film would of probably felt like in 1981. There is a beauty in the imperfections; a beauty that would be lost through fabricated attempts to clarify and overly restore it.

Joel Rice in Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Opening scene from Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Audio

The audio track is somewhat flawed. There are moments, especially in the dialogue scenes, where the voices sound slightly distorted. Again, being a low-budget film, the lacking audio quality is most likely more a representation of the film, and not due to a poor transfer. A few hisses are present, but overall the audio track is solid; the dynamic range balances the soundtrack, dialogue and moments of silence in a manner that never allows one element to overwhelm another.

Joel S. Rice in Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Joel S. Rice in Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

Extras

This Blu-Ray is not laden with extra features, but what is offered is a nice treat for fans of the film. Shout! Factory’s release includes audio-commentary and interviews with cast members Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch, and the original theatrical trailer. The interviews are mainly nostalgic remembrances of the three cast members’ experiences as first time actors. They are entertaining enough, but are not something that demand, or even warrant, multiple viewings. In addition, the production quality of the interviews is somewhat lacking. The addition of the original theatrical trailer is nice, as it is always an interesting experience seeing how the marketing of older horror films was handled. Again, like the interviews, the addition is not something that will inspire continual viewings, but it is nice they are present.

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Bottom Line

Final Cut may not have risen to the heights that films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street have but, despite its relegation into the more obscure corners of the horror community, it is an important film. Equally following in the footsteps of Carpenter and radically breaking with horror conventions, the film is a mandatory piece of horror history. There is more than enough entertaining aspects of the film to outweigh its faults. Despite a somewhat lacking amount of features, Shout! Factory has presented the film in a manner that is fitting. It may not have the best picture or sound, but there is something about the slight deterioration of the print that adds to the overall package. Neither the most graphic slasher, or the fastest paced, Final Exam nonetheless stands the test of time, even if it is just your guilty pleasure.

 

A scene from Jimmy Huston's Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]

A scene from Jimmy Huston’s Final Exam (1981) [click to enlarge]