A small group of students at al North Carolina college are knee deep in the middle of their final exams. Each one of them are busy dealing with their upcoming tests in their own way, doing everything from actually studying for the test, to trying to steal the answers to said test. But what they should really be concerned about is the psychotic killer who’s recently migrated from another local college killing spree to their own swiftly emptying campus.
And it came so highly recommended for its lack of mass murder, too….
The first word that comes to mind when I think about Final Exam is mediocre. There’s nothing particularly memorable about it, but at the same time it doesn’t do anything sinfully abhorrent either. As far as slashers go, it’s light on all the things that typical genre fans look for: inventive kills, gore, nudity and suspense. Most of the scenes feel familiar and the characters tend to fall into typical, cookie-cutter genre tropes. The camera never shies away from giving you a full view of the nameless killer, yet at the same time tends to pull away when anything bloody transpires, causing most of the violence that the movie does have to occur just out of view. And if you’re hoping the film will make up for the lack of blood with more nudity, you will be disappointed. There is one brief scene before she briefly covers up with an iridescent sheet and that’s it. You get more nakedness out of the poor frat boy that gets hazed and covered in whipped cream. As far as slashers go, Final Exam comes across as very…. Well, tame, I think, is a good descriptor for it.
Soak him in, ladies and gents.
The one thing that does set the movie apart from the slew of similar slashers that emerged following the Halloween and Friday the 13th craze, is immense focus on character development. Most of the characters in Final Exam may be familiar tropes (the dumb jock, the brain, the slut, the dunce, the good girl…), but by god, they are fleshed out tropes. With most other slashers the main hero gets 75% of the screen time, with the rest of the shots getting split between the killer’s perspective and the spunky sidekick, with maybe a bit of love interest thrown in for good measure if you’re lucky. But here, each victim is given their own side story and ample screen time before the bodies start piling up.
This character focus is both the film’s strength and weakness. For one, it’s rare that a slasher focus on anyone other than the main player. Most everyone else in these types of low-budget slashers usually only registers just one or two notches above a mannequin with a decent wig and occasional facial expressions as far as importance goes. But Final Exam really makes the characters the focus of the film. The movie spends a good two-thirds of its time focusing on their doubts, romances, awkwardness and hijinks. As a result, we get a good look into their lives and they become more than just ‘inconsequential victims.’
Only the poor schmucks on lover’s lane are granted that distinction.
However, this also turns the movie into very much of a slow burn. When I said the first two-thirds of the movie focus on the characters, I wasn’t kidding. With the exception of the couple that ends up getting killed within the first five minutes, the next body doesn’t drop until a good 45-minutes later. Everything between that feels like a very different film, one filled with basic college student drama mixed in with frat boy hijinks that would have made even some of the members of Animal House think they’d gone too far.
Of course, today I expect they’d all be expelled on the spot for such creative ‘hijinks.’
As for the characters themselves, the results are kind of variable. Of course, all the frat members come off as assholes in some form or another, even the one you’re supposed to feel bad for. And even some of the ‘good’ kids end up delivering some questionable lines. Geeky Radish, for example (I’m not sure if that’s a nickname or if his parents hated him), seems to have an unhealthy fascination with real-life crime, becoming excited when relaying news of the murders of the students at the nearby college and praising the skills of sniper Walt Whitman. On the other hand, he’s also polite, respectful to all the woman he comes in contact with, and also seems to be the only character genuinely concerned with the safety of the people around him. I’m a bit torn on my feelings about him, quite honestly. Then again, he also has the walls of his room covered in horror movie posters, so I guess I’ll chalk up some of those lines to awkwardness and teenage confusion and leave it at that.
Though that doesn’t explain jersey-boy grabbing him by the pants like that…Then again, jersey-boy does a lot of other questionable things with the males he comes in contact with.
Like, seriously dude, WTF are you doing to his neck? I think you’re even more confused than you look.
Predictability and sexual confusion aside, one of the saving graces of Final Exam is how pretty the whole thing looks. Not only does it benefit by being shot on a quaint little college campus, but it also has some gorgeously framed and well lighted shots. That’s not to say that the movie looks perfect, mind you. There are some noticeable scratches and dust marks and it’s clear that the movie was made on a very tight budget, but even considering all that it’s still a very aesthetically shot movie.
So, in the end Final Exam winds up being very predictable. The film looks nice, but there’s nothing here that really makes it memorable. The characters are familiar, the set up is familiar and, hell, even the killer is familiar. What sets this movie apart from it’s contemporaries is its dedicated focus on the lives of its characters. Yet at the same time, this same dedication really wrecks havoc with the pacing of the film, likely turning off a lot of dedicated slasher fans. Most people don’t care to wait 45-50 minutes in between kills and the viewer’s enjoyment of the film is going to hinge on how much they care about the daily lives of a bunch of college kids. Still, that focus does set the movie apart from similar fare, so I must give them credit for doing something different. So if you’re looking for an atypical slasher, give Final Exam a try. But if you’re a gore and/or nudity hound, this is not the film for you.
Final Exam is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.