Final Exam (1981) is a bad film with some genuinly amazing ideas.

In context, this still makes no sense

This can easily be dismissed as yet another slasher that turned up on the coattails of Halloween and Friday The 13th, as part of The Golden Age Of Slashers. And it has all the hallmarks of such a film; it’s cheap, follows the tropes, and has a lot of so-so acting and directing. However, for all it’s many failings, writer and director Jimmy Huston needs to be applauded for making a film that really tried to do something different with the genre in several interesting ways.

“I’m a police”

The first thing it does is outright show us the killer within the first couple of minutes. No lurking shadow, no sinister mask, no fancy foreplay: we see Timothy L. Raynor’s face as The Killer, hacking apart two sexed-up university students who were trying to hump in the backseat of a car. It is, both as an act of violence and a directorial choice, strong stuff. A solid slasher opening, but with enough of a twist to make you wonder what’s going to happen next.

Introducing Kurt Vonnegut’s sexier and cheaper cousin

As you would expect, we then get introduced to our assortment of main cast student victims as they do their thing around campus. Unexpectedly, this section carries on for about an hour; playing out far more like a “slice of life” drama than any kind of horror. It has some low-key sexploits, a fraternity hazing plotline, a simulated-terrorism-based prank incident (no, I am not exaggerating), and is mostly just a bunch of almost-twenty-somethings being dull like actual students really are.

“Don’t kink shame me, bro”

This is, as a viewer, not very good. None of it has, as far as we can tell, anything to do with the murders we turned up to see. But it’s interestingly not good, because it highlights the bizarre social contract that the viewer has made with the film. You’ll be frustrated because no one has crossed enough social conventions for us to justify cheering at the evacuation they really don’t deserve, no one has presented themselves as brave or smart enough for us to wince as they die valiantly, and no one is insignificant enough for us to just focus on how nifty their means of dispatch is.

Objectively funny.

It’s all just much of a muchness, of people getting along with getting along. Even The Final Girl (Cecile Bagadai), that avatar of one of the most misunderstood tropes in cinema, is selected purely because she has an assignment to hand in the next day. Blind luck, rather than adherence to any real moral code or practice, keeps her breathing. The only slight nod to her traditional path is that she’s there at the exposition for the killer’s existence, and that’s hidden deep within the subtext. Radish (Joel S. Rice), who is possibly the comic relief, just off handily mentions that some people go crazy and start killing other people for no reason. That’s it, that’s the whole mythos, and you’ll ignore it till the film is done and you’re crying out for a nice little narrative reason it all happened

I have a pet theory that The Killer is supposed to be a Vietnam veteran, based on his jacket and him possibly wearing dog tags

Eventually, the bodies start hitting the floor and the sick bastards that are the audience can start having their fun with a few decent kills. However, the writer continues to have more fun, as all the seeds planted in the overly long third act come to fruition. Not excitingly, it’s just that everything is far to meticulously justified. We don’t have feelings for The Killer because he’s just some arsehole, we don’t have feelings for the victims because they’re just some people, and sadly we don’t have feelings for any kind of morality play as it’s just some sequence of events.

I can’t remember a single thing about any of these people

Eventually, the Final Girl kills The Killer as you would expect. She then goes to the body to make sure they’re dead, as you would expect, and then, as you expect, he isn’t. So, she grabs his own knife and stabs him. Lots. And then a bit more. Full-blown, two-handed, center-mass blows. She absolutely goes to town on him, like you’ve always wanted (and probably screamed at the telly for) a Final Girl to do, for what feels like an absolute age. She then walks out of the room, sits down on the steps, and cries through the credits because of everything we just saw. It is an incredibly real and honest scene.

“Did I leave the gas on?”

It’s not good enough to make up for the rest of the film though, because you’ll still be annoyed at the hour of a bunch of mildly unlikable people twatting about (assuming you had the tenacity to stick around that long). But it does give an idea of the themes Huston was playing around with and how good this film could have been. Quite why it wasn’t all like that I don’t know, as it could have been anything from marketability to lack of inexperience, or anywhere in between, but it has a post-modern, internally reflective horror tone all over it that makes it the forebearer of Scream and it’s ilk. It’s still Trash, but it’s Trash that tried to be something so much bigger than it ever could be and for that, I have to respect it and pray that someone will do an enjoyable-to-watch version of it someday.

The Raggedyman

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