The 1981 slasher film, Final Exam, opens with a familiar scene. A couple is making out in a car. A man (played by Timothy L. Raynor) comes along and kills them both.
Why does the man do this? Is he an escaped mental patient, like the killer who always appear in the urban legend about the man with the hook? Is he an angry father, upset that students have been parking near his farm and corrupting his children with their sinful ways? Is he an occultist, hoping that a blood sacrifice will bring about the end of the world? Is he a jilted lover or an unemployed day laborer or a zombie or an international assassin or a former fat boy looking for vengeance on the students who pulled the prank that caused him to drop out of college? Seriously, what is this guy’s deal!?
We never find out. That, in itself, makes Final Exam unique. The Killer is not only not given a motive, he’s not even given a name! He’s just someone who shows up and starts killing. No one knows him and he doesn’t appear to know anyone that he kills. The fact that he’s so anonymous is actually a factor in the film’s favor. The flamboyant motivations that are given to most slasher villains tend to serve as a distancing device for the audience. It’s easy, for instance, to dismiss Jason Voorhees because we know that the idea of him drowning and then somehow showing up in the woods just doesn’t make any sense. The convoluted backstory of Michael Myers (or at least the Myers who was present in the original, pre-reboot Halloween films) eventually became so ludicrous that it made it easier for audiences to say, “Well, it’s just a move.” Final Exam‘s motiveless killer is actually far more true to life. In real life, it’s rare that we ever learn the motives behind the crimes. By making the Killer anonymous, Final Exam takes away one of the tools that the audience can use to assure themselves that it’s only a movie.
Unfortunately, the scenes following the opening murder are so inept that the audience is instantly reminded that they’re just watching a movie and not a particularly well-made one at that. It’s final exam time on campus but several students aren’t ready to take their Chemistry exam. So, a fraternity fakes a shooting spree — yes, you read that correctly — and manages to get the exam delayed for a day. That means that, while all of the other students have gone home, the chemistry students stay on campus so that they can study for their final exam. And, of course, the killer is on his way to the campus as well….
While the killer makes his way to campus, we sit through several scenes of campus hijinks. It’s a weird mix of horror and comedy. We meet a few students who are obviously destined to victims. Neurotic Radish (Joel S. Rice) is likably nerdy. Lisa (DeAnna Robbins) is having an affair with one of her professors, but at least she has a great first name. The frat boys are doing steroids and tying each other to trees. Apparently, spending the night tied to a tree is some sort of initiation ritual. That’s not a good situation to find yourself in when there’s a killer stalking the surrounding area.
Yes, the killer does eventually arrive on campus but it seems to take him forever. Once he does arrive, he starts killing everyone that he meets and, again, his lack of motivation makes him far more disturbing and frightening than he has any right to be. It really is the ultimate nightmare. Not only is someone trying to kill you but he’s doing it just because. There’s no reason for his actions and therefore, there’s no way to talk him out of it. There’s no secret to distracting or stopping him. You just have to run and hope you can escape. Cecile Bugdadi plays Courtney, who is pretty obviously destined to be the final girl. She gives a good performance and you definitely want her to escape but again, the film is so poorly paced that, by the time she gets her chance to face the Killer, the majority of the audience will probably have checked out, either mentally or physically.
Final Exam has a cult following, which I kind of understand. It really is the epitome of what people imagine when they imagine a typical, low-budget, early 80s slasher film. It represents an era. But for me, it’s just too uneven to work.