Jimmy Huston Away! The shuttle has released its payload! And, it’s 100% Pure Huston…laced with plenty of “Oh Yeah”!
I love Final Exam. And, yes, I appreciate it. It’s a film I’ve always enjoyed but would never defend. I didn’t think you could. As a slasher, it disappoints most people. There are only two killings in the first half and those are in the first five minutes. There is very little suspense and no scares until the killing begins, over fifty-five minutes in. There is a presence there. The killer is always lurking around and, clearly, sizing up the group of college students he’s planning on killing when night falls.
The movie takes place on the penultimate day of Finals Week at Lanier College in North Carolina. The first hour is, basically, about a group of college students who all have some sort of final exam on the last day of Finals. We follow them from a chemistry exam in the mid-afternoon until the middle of the night when the killer is finally killed himself1. The last half-hour is the people we have been watching getting murdered by this unnamed man in quick succession.
I can understand the slasher fan’s disappointment. Even I used to think that the film loses it a bit when the killing starts (actually the opposite of what the slasher fan would be thinking). I really enjoyed the strange audacity of spending almost an hour setting up all the characters without introducing any extraneous characters just to kill (Hello, Friday the 13th!)2. When the killing started, I always felt a little sad. I enjoyed the characters — even the rather annoying “Wildman” had his charms. But, I used to float away during the killings. There’s not much in them to distinguish them from other slashers of the period and the final chase is a little dull.
In March 2008, I saw Final Exam on the big screen and that made all the difference.
I think I forgot how important the all-encompassing atmosphere of a theater can work for a film. I think that even when you’re watching a film at home in the most optimum atmosphere — You’ve got a big screen. You’ve got loud speakers. The room is dimmed. There is nothing to distract you, in theory. There can be so many ways to have your attention yanked away. The phone can ring. Someone can interrupt you. If you have to go to the bathroom, you’ll pause the film and go. (In a theater, you might choose to hold it in and not miss anything.) And, in the end, there is a different sort of feeling when you’re watching something at any time you want between watching something with a set time to it. The movie theater makes it more of an event, possibly stamps it with more importance. It sure worked with Final Exam.
First, the print I saw was lighter than the VHS tape. In the opening sequence, the space behind the couple making out is nothing but darkness and the occasional headlight. On the big screen, it’s clear that they’re not very far away from the campus. Those lights are cars passing a campus building. I had always thought that they were quite some distance away. Maybe up on a hill or something. Skipping to the end: During the final chase, Courtney runs down a little alley in between two buildings. There’s a sign there. It reads “Bookstore”. I’d never spotted it before.
There are moments of framing that come out on the big screen (and also in a widescreen version), where things that can’t be seen on the VHS or that are on the very edges of the frame take on more significance. The one that really grabbed me was when Gary is stealing a test from a professor’s darkened office and we see the killer, with knife, in the window of the office door. I was pretty sure I’d seen him there before but couldn‘t quite remember. Regardless, it had never had an impact before. The killer has been lurking for so long and now he seems to be ready to kill. But, he doesn’t. In fact, doing that doesn’t match his MO at all. If he’s been watching everyone as intently as I think he has, he must know that the frat guys are nearby. A killing now would mess up everything he’s been planning. And, there’s a possibility that he knows Gary gave his pledge pin to Janet. If so, his brothers will probably tree him3. That would be the perfect time to kill Gary. Not here. Plus, it’s still daylight.
So, why is this moment here? It could be a mistake. Mr. Huston may have gone against his restraint in the rest of the film and decided to add an actual threat here. If so, that’s too bad but you’ll find some sloppy writing in this article and that’s too bad too. None of us are perfect. You give credit to someone for trying, especially when they succeed most of the time. There is always the possibility that the Killer means to kill Gary and then maybe go after Janet and leave it at that. He only killed two folks at the last college. Maybe that was his plan. They are the only couple in the main body of the film.
Could it be that when he hears the frat boys approaching he hides and sees Gary get treed? At that point, he may realize that, with a little patience and keeping a keen eye open, he can kill many more people than he originally planned4. If you watch it, you can see that everyone congregates together and then, as the night progresses, they separate off into smaller groups and then by themselves. As this happens, he kills them. He may have anticipated this but not thought he could pull it off. (Why hang around looking more suspicious then you have to?) Of course, this is all way off my original point about spotting new things on the big screen.
The framing doesn’t always succeed, by the way. I’ve always loved the bit where Courtney is on the staircase and passes the mirror with the killer in it. She goes into the hall, pauses, steps back in but the killer is gone. It’s a nice Michael Meyers moment. On the big screen, it’s a bit too…big. The killer’s a large man. It seems less plausible that Courtney would have missed him. It seems like he’s standing there because the director thought it would be a cool place for him to stand. Also, the killer’s big, brown van lurks a little too obviously ominously on the big screen.
The element about the big screen viewing that really surprised me was that the last half-hour works almost perfectly when my attention was 100% on it. Starting with Gary in the office until the first killing, there are about half-a-dozen moments of “Here comes the Killer! No…it’s that guy or gal.” False scares lurk all over films like this. But, they seem to multiply in this film as the time when we expect the killings to begin approaches. By the time Gary is cut free from the tree, I knew from previous viewings that he was dead, but the experience of watching it, as I was, made me doubt what I knew was going to happen. The patience of the killer coupled with the false scares made me sit quietly as Gary walks away from the tree. It’s almost the sort of thing where you see or hear something but don’t register it until a moment later. I knew Gary was going to die but I had been caught up in the false scare rhythm. I knew this was his end. Janet doesn’t have the character to sneak around like this. (When she arrives at the tree, she is yelling “Gary!”) It must be the killer. And yet, we’ve had our strings pulled and maybe…The killer drops on Gary and the murders begin.
Keeping those thoughts and hopping to Courtney’s Final Run — many slashers lose me when the final chase begins. They are generally not very scary and pretty perfunctory. A lot of running and no killing. Just make it to the end. I used to feel that way about the end of Final Exam. I don’t anymore for one simple reason…When Courtney runs out of the kitchen and bolts into the “Bookstore” alley, we see a close-up of the killer’s feet bounding over a dumpster. We see Courtney dashing around a corner. The end is near. And, suddenly, I realized that I was shaking. I was scared and riveted, literally, on the edge of my seat. That had never happened before. When the credits started to roll, I felt a bit drained but rather thrilled. I stood at the bus stop with that sort of shivery feeling that a good film or a good song or a good anything gives you. I’d seen the film fifteen times. This was the first time that happened. I could watch the film at home as many times I wanted but until I saw it right I didn’t get the full power of it.
Nicely done, Mr. Huston.
Before I wander into the characters, I must mention one more thing I noticed. What about Courtney and the double doors? Courtney and Lisa’s room has two doors but it’s never really made a big deal out of. That’s just the way the room is laid out. At the end of one scene, late in the movie, Radish leaves through one and asks Courtney to lock it. She does. There is a pause and then a knock on the other door. It’s Radish. He compliments Courtney and leaves. It’s very sweet. Then, during the final chase, Courtney locks the killer into the meat locker in the kitchen. As she walks away, the killer bursts from a second door that Courtney didn’t know was open or didn’t know was part of the same locker. It’s an interesting parallel. Maybe if she had taken Radish’s advice and locked both doors the killer would have been stuck in the meat locker?
Following on from that, here’s another thought: Radish is in the gym. He discovers dead bodies. Swiftly, he dashes across campus to Courtney’s room. He pounds on her door and the killer yanks him through it and…that is the end of Radish. Courtney has gone to the Coke machine. When she returns, the killer has posed Radish in the door. But, he is not there. He has gone to the conservatory to kill Lisa. It makes me wonder…Was he in Courtney’s room to kill Courtney? She wasn’t there so he waited. But, the person who arrived was Radish so he killed him and went on to the next killing. Making Courtney the Final Girl by default, not design. Maybe Radish was meant to be the Final Girl, as it were. It’s not a groundbreaking revelation or anything, just a thought. Radish is the one who is the most interested in the randomness of the crazy.
As I mentioned, I always liked the film because it presents a group of young people in their prime. They are named and characterized and presented with lives. Then, this unknown man comes in and kills them all, leaving the one who kills him scarred. It’s a tragic story more than a slasher film. It’s like a driver’s ed film where we meet some sweet kids right before they go out driving and die. It’s inevitable. The killer is a force of nature like a hurricane. It’s coming. And, it’ll be here before the sun comes up5. In my mind, the film worked about 80%. I’d never quite warmed to the last half-hour and some of the characters were kind of blah to me. Janet and Gary and Wildman and Brian were too obvious for me. My focus (as slashers seem to make it) was on Courtney and the people closest to her (Radish and Lisa).
I can safely say without fear of being accused of hyperbole that Final Exam works 90% of the time. “Dan, 90%? Where’d you come up with that? What about the other percent?” Well, I’m using the Crossley-Briggs Movie Meter as invented in 1934 and revised in 1956 and again in 1962. No, I’m just making that up. I don’t like starring reviews or giving them “Thumbs Ups” because there are too many variables in the area of filmmaking that we float around in. A filmmaker with 100 million dollars and full studio support shouldn’t be goofing up. Someone with very little money and limited time can have their work go wrong in so many ways. Let’s celebrate when they go right before we dwell on what went wrong. (Although, for some films, the joy can come from the sheer overwhelming volume of things gone wrong. The Last Slumber Party, I’m talking to you! And loving it!) There are a lot of things that go right in Final Exam. Here is what I think (with a revised C-BMM rating) still goes wrong:
Some of the dialogue is awkward. It just happens during the conversations. It’s tough to pin down exact moments but there are a few bits during the opening “meet and greet” tracking shots where there is some blatant exposition and all the walking and talking suddenly seems like acting, rather than natural conversation. It’s nothing that gets in the way of the film but certain moments remind you that this is a film. The acting is uniformly good. Maybe a Master Class group of actors would have brought a little more to the table. The only actor who is distracting is the woman who plays Elizabeth. She delivers her lines a bit shrilly. But, she seemed to be a crowd favorite at the theater so who’s complaining?
A few of the suspense building moments don’t quite come off on the big screen. The aforementioned staircase moment and the big van6. Sometimes the killer standing around is convincing. Sometimes he’s posing for a Halloween remake.
And…the bit that bugged me: Lisa is in the conservatory. She is on the second or third floor practicing her piano, waiting for the Chemistry Professor. She looks out the window. She hears someone enter the building. So, she heads up one floor and prepares the art room, lighting candles and losing her clothes. Then, we cut to the killer killing Radish from over in Courtney’s room, several buildings away. Then, back to Lisa, nude under a lovely satin sheet. A man enters…it’s the killer. She is murdered.
Who did she hear entering the building when she was looking out the window? It couldn’t have been the killer because he was several buildings away killing Radish. Or the killer opened the door of the conservatory, ran to the dorm, killed Radish and ran back. But, that strains all slasher credibility. If it was the professor, why didn’t he come up? There’s no sign of him anywhere. Surely, if he was killed, his body would appear somewhere. And, if a beautiful young woman was waiting for you under a satin sheet at the top of three flights of stairs, why would you take five or ten minutes to go up there, especially if you have a wife and kids waiting at home? Lisa doesn’t announce that she’s ready. So, she prepares and a man walks in and it’s the killer. So, my question stands: Who does she hear that makes her go up to prepare? I don’t think it was the killer.
It was either: 1. The Professor, but he got called away for some reason so he never went up the steps, or 2. Someone else entirely. Maybe they went in the wrong building or in another room. But, Lisa seems pretty sure that it’s the Professor. Surely assignations of this sort don’t have random things like this happen. Either one is a bit too coincidental.
Piddling stuff, really. Especially, when so much of the film works. The characters are good. You don’t want to see them die. And, when the killing begins, it’s in a rush that is overwhelming. When Radish dies, several people in the theater yelled “No way!” and “Oh no, Radish!” No one made a similar sound when characters died during Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter, which showed before Final Exam. That’s doing something right. And, as I mentioned, for me, the last half-hour all fell into place this time. I’ve talked about all of that already so I’d like to spend a little more time on the individual characters before I wrap this rambling appreciation up7.
Courtney: The Final Girl, but only because she makes it to the end. She may dress like a standard Final Girl but I don’t think she is. Radish and she clearly have a little something blooming there. If the Killer hadn’t come along, I predict they would have been together soon after the next semester began. She does spend almost the entire movie studying at her desk but that just makes her studious. And, it is the night before her last final. For all we know, she could be pulling an all-nighter, which doesn’t strike me as Final Girl behavior.
Courtney is intelligent, attractive and observant. She is modeled, I believe, on Laurie from Halloween. But, since this is a dorm, she’s more in the center of things than Laurie was and she gets along fine. She likes her roommate, Lisa, but is jealous of her. She clearly likes Radish but both of them are rather shy. She seems to get on well with everyone. She doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, unlike almost everyone else. She is a slightly above-average American gal. Sweet and kind and, if you got her out of those jeans and that sweater and in to something a little more feminine, she’d probably be rather hot.
Radish: He’s nerdy. He has a computer. He wants to be a member of a SWAT team. He is obsessed with serial killers and people who hurt other people. The jocks and frat guys pick on him but it never seems truly threatening. Possibly as college progresses, he would grow away from most of these folks as he got deeper into whatever his work is. But, as I remember from college, all the cliques and groups melded together for the first semester or two. Radish becomes part of it. Oh, he clearly has a thing for Courtney but doesn’t know how to bring it up. He also is equipment manager for the football team. Maybe it’s an extra credit thing.
Lisa: She’s blonde. She’s rather hot. She’s a city girl who knows that she can get almost anything she wants with her wiles and she’s getting it. She is passing Chemistry by sleeping with the teacher. She chastises Courtney for studying too much. “Once you get out of school, nobody cares what your grades were.” This is generally true but not everyone has the sort of disposition where they can just shake their ass at everyone to get what they want. When we first see her, she is setting up her meeting with the Professor. She dies waiting for the Professor to arrive.
Brian: He has great hair and a cool car. He’s pretty much standard preppy. He probably has wealthy parents and is just at college because they want him to be there. As the head of the frat, I would guess he’s several years older than the other main characters, except for Wildman. I don’t quite know why he’d be hanging out with everyone here but he is. It’s a friendly campus, I guess. Brian is a rather calm “feel good” kind of guy. He keeps his head while being chased by the Killer but loses out in the end.
Wildman: The big, loud football guy in the same fraternity with Brian. He yells a lot and likes drinking. Everyone seems to like him, though. No one shakes their head at him with disdain. He dies stealing pain pills from the Coach’s office. He puts up a decent fight against the Killer but most of his fighting style involves yelling. Maybe if it involved some drinking too it would have worked.
Janet: She is the gal who always has a serious boyfriend. She’s a bit empty headed but she loves Gary. In fact, it is her love for Gary that leads to her death. If she hadn’t gone to un-tree him, she might have lived. At one point, she admits that her relationships have gotten more serious since college and she’s not so happy about that. In the end, her love of being loved wins out.
Gary: A fraternity pledge who breaks into a professor’s office to steal exam answers while wearing a shirt that says “GARY” in bright, white letters. He’s that sort of guy. Janet loves him. But, I’m less than convinced that he loves Janet. (There’s a possibility that she puts out nicely in the sex department.) This is confirmed when he says “That bitch is always late!” while he’s “treed”. He clearly cares about his fraternity more than her. (She is one compartment in his life.) He seems to have more fun with the frat boys that with Janet. Of course, both of these things lead to his downfall.
Those are the main characters in the film. The actors bring extra shades to all of them that my brief overviews don’t really touch on.
Look, I’ve gone on quite a bit here. Final Exam is a good movie. It’s not a classic, nor is it really trying to be. It’s a good horror film with a rather daring structure that is well worth your time. I know most folks won’t be able to see this on the big screen but, if you can, for God’s sake, do. You’ll see the film right. It’s worth it.
After all of that, I’ve got four quick closing points and then I’ll let you return to your life. (I have to get to work on my Byron Quisenberry’s Scream — An Appreciation.)
First Point: I’ve read in assorted reviews over the years that folks have problems with the fact that the killer doesn’t seem to be given a motive. Of course he is. Radish says at one point “Someone wakes up one morning and just decides ‘Today is a good day to snuff somebody’.” The killer is insane. He has no motive apart from the fact that he’s nuts. It’s a lot more like real serial killer behavior than most slashers with their elaborate motives and back stories8.
Second Point: Watch House Of Death after this and spot the same cast members appearing. Everyone thought “Gene Poole” was a gag. It may be but the guy exists. I’ve seen him in two movies.
Third Point: Radish isn’t gay. Occasionally becoming a bit fey doesn’t automatically make you gay.
Fourth Point: I believe that the film takes place at the end of the Winter Semester. It’s never started as fact and no one has any Christmas decorations up. But…if tomorrow were the last day, Lisa would have packed everything and not just a couple of suitcases. At least one of the dorm rooms we see would have everything packed up, ready to leave in the morning. But, there’s nothing. And, the convincer…”You look like you’re never coming back.” “It all depends on our grades.” Lisa and Courtney see two of their friends taking everything home. Going away for the summer, you take everything and you don’t say “Why are you taking everything?” to people. Going home for the winter, you take what you need for the break because you’ll be right back.
Fifth Point: Is Mitch, the night watchman, dead? Courtney pounds on his truck to wake him up but he doesn’t move. I was never sure if he was dead or asleep or passed out drunk. I thought on the big screen I’d see a slit throat or something. But, you know, I didn’t. I continue to wonder about Mitch.
1. The time frame does seem a little off. The final chase seems like it should conclude around midnight. But, certain things seem to indicate that it is almost morning. The main one being the Coach arriving to pick up the security guard for hunting. I know hunters start early but do they start at midnight. Isn’t it more like an hour or two before sunrise? Something about the final shot seems to indicate that the sun is about to rise, too. But, this doesn’t really hold water. Courtney is studying for her finals. However, a woman as smart and studious as her wouldn’t be studying until right before dawn. She’d get some sleep. And, Lisa is killed in the conservatory waiting for the chemistry professor. When Courtney gets there, the killer is still there. I can’t imagine the married professor agreed to meet Lisa at 4 or 5 in the morning.↩
2. One of the strangest things I used to see in reviews for this film is when books that hate slashers complain that this one has too much talk. There was a book from Cinebooks in 1988 called “The Horror Film” that has some great reviews alongside some of the most hilariously condescending reviews you’ve ever seen. Final Exam gets a zero rating. (Not an uncommon occurrence in this book.) They hate slasher films but they complain that the film is all “talk, talk, talk”. Then, they complain that there isn’t enough blood in the killings. I never quite figured out what this book was up too. If you don’t like any horror films post-Night Of The Living Dead, don’t review them.↩
3. To “tree” someone: Every pledge is given a pledge pin. It’s a tradition to give your girlfriend your pledge pin to wear. However, if your frat brothers catch you without your pledge pin, you will get “treed”. They strip you down to your underpants, tie you to a tree in the middle of the campus, cover you with shaving cream and spray you with fire extinguisher foam. The only person who can cut you down is the gal with the pledge pin. Does anyone study anymore?↩
4. In the end, this is a bad idea. Courtney kills him. It may have worked better if he’d killed Gary and Janet and left.↩
5. In that way, it is very different from the other slashers of its time. We care about, maybe, the Final Girl, in those. Everyone else is expendable and, frankly, that’s why we love them. The best slashers are guilt-free carnage. We don’t have to get involved. We just watch.↩
6. I know the frat boys pull their prank with a big brown van but still…↩
7. I tried to give this thing more structure but sometimes you just want to talk about something you like. And, like chatting with a friend, you go on tangents and float onto side roads and go all over the place. My apologies to anyone looking for a more concisely structured article.↩
8. There’s always time for one more footnote. I recently listened to an episode of Dragnet: “Big Cast” (airdate 02/08/51). (“The story you have just heard is true…”) In that one, a dozen men have gone missing over the period of a few months. Friday and Romero track down the killer. And, this killer likes to talk. He says, “…one thing I get a big kick out of is detective magazines, mystery stories. The way they make out the murderers…They always build it up into something big. Somebody’s always killing someone for a million dollars or maybe over some woman, some beautiful woman. Same way with the movies. That’s where they get it all mixed up…Every time some guy writes a murder story he’s got to build up some big reason for the killing. Lot of money, beautiful woman, revenge, maybe. Always gotta be a big reason, motive. ‘Motive’, that’s what they say…I’ll bet you there’s a thousand murder cases in your files without any reason at all. Some people just kill, that’s all. I’ve heard about lots of ‘em. They just want to kill and they go ahead and do it…Like this thing you’ve been talking about, 10, 12 guys disappear. They got a few bucks, maybe they got nothing. Somebody plows ‘em under and that’s all. No big reason. They just do it. So, 12 guys are gone. That doesn’t mean anything.” If it was good enough for an award-winning radio show that many consider to be a classic (count me as one of them), why can’t it work for Jimmy Huston and “Final Exam”?↩