Fatal Exam (1990)

Fatal Exam

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A group of university students taking a parapsychology course are given a unique opportunity by their professor. In place of a traditional exam, he offers to let them go and spend their final weekend of class doing some paranormal investigation and report their findings of the Nostrand House, a notorious local building which two years prior was the scene of a brutal family slaying and has since then been rumored to be haunted. Sight of a grisly unsolved mass murder aside, the offer sounds like a good deal. The students will get to spend their weekend out in the country collecting light data, and if they don’t find anything, no big deal, because this isn’t the type of project the professor can give a failing grade for. So the following weekend, nine students diligently head off to the secluded Nostrand house, anticipating little more than a relaxing weekend of light investigating and beer drinking. But the more time the students spend in the house, the more they learn that things aren’t quite as quaint and innocent as they seem, and it isn’t long before the very confused group end up getting picked off one-by-one by forces unknown. There’s something more diabolical going on in the Nostrand home than a simple haunting, and now it’s up to the few remaining survivors to figure out what it is before the evil surrounding the house gets out of hand.

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Whoops. Too late.

The title for this movie initially confused me when it popped up on my suggested list, because I kept thinking I’d already seen it before, but couldn’t remember there being any ghosts in the film. But then I realized I was mistaking it for Final Exam, which is a decently shot, but rather plodding and by-the-numbers university slasher, but sans any ghosts. My bad, but can you blame me? After a while some of the names for these horror films start to get so samesies that they begin to merge into one another and get lost in the giant horror miasma of blood, guts, and confusingly rehashed characters and plot-points. The independently made and locally produced Fatal Exam doesn’t really do anything to buck that mold, either. It’s got a handful of doofy college students wandering around a secluded location while they get picked off one at a time, except in this instance instead of a lone maniac with a knife, their enemy is an evil ghost and devil worshipers. Cool, but it’s still basically a horror “paint-by-numbers” plot that you’ve likely seen a dozen times or more before already. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any effort put into its creation, because there are a couple of decent nuggets hidden within, but it’s also really obvious that director Jack Snyder’s first film is an extremely low budget production.

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The film’s biggest issue is that it’s just WAY too fragging long. Now, the plot itself actually isn’t all that bad. Yeah, it’s highly predictable and not nearly as smart as it seems to think it is, but unlike some cheep-o slashers you can tell that at least some competent level of thought and planning actually went into making the story. Not a lot, maybe, but some. There’s quite a bit of foreshadowing going on and efforts are made to connect all the various pieces of the plot together. So at least on that front, the filmmakers get an “A” for effort. The main problem arises not so much in the story itself, but rather the familiar culprit that seems to plague a lot of low-budget films: the execution. The entire movie is in horrible, desperate need of a pair of editing scissors. So while the plot as a whole may be fine, it’s the individual scenes themselves that end up really killing the film’s momentum. The camera frequently lingers on people and objects when it doesn’t need to. Characters repeat actions, like running down the hallway, three-to-four times, when one or two instances would have been sufficient. There is an overabundance of unnecessary reaction shots from various cast members. There are a lot of unnecessary pauses in between lines… You get the idea. Most of it boils down to a lot of tiny, but unnecessary actions and inclusions. But when nearly all of your scenes are comprised of those inclusions, all those tiny additions really begin to add up. So instead of producing a predictable, but entertaining enough, 80-minute long, moderately paced supernatural slasher, you end up with a dull 113-minute long slog filled with a bunch of dead space that feels like it’s just never going to end. But considering Jack Snyder was not only the film’s director, but also its writer, producer and editor, I guess all this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Seems the dude had a lot on his plate regarding this little passion project. It did take a good five years to get the film completed, after all.

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Compared to the amateurish filmmaking, all the bad acting actually makes the film more tolerable. Or at least it makes it more entertaining. Characters make ridiculous faces, often repeat themselves, and deliver a lot of their lines in a stilted monotone, as if they’d just read the script five minutes before they shot the scene. Which, in this production, they very well could have done. I wouldn’t put it past this movie. But what makes the line delivery worse is that it’s obvious that most, if not all, of the film was re-dubbed after shooting, so the actors conceivably had at least had some time to practice their delivery, and yet we ended up with this instead. Oh well. At least it adds some unintentional humor to the film during all the downtime while the viewer waits for the plot to move along and do…. well, anything.

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After about 75 or so minutes of plot exposition and watching the 30 and 40-something university students walk around an inexplicably fully furnished home, drink beer and complain, the movie finally sees fit to start killing people off (thank God) and we finally get a sense of the film’s special effects which are, as predicted, not great. But they also aren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be, which again shows that at least some thought was put into this film’s production. People are stabbed, necks are sliced, and it’s all very rudimentary, but effective. But the most impressive bit is the 2-3 minutes of stop-motion demon towards the end, which actually looks pretty cool. Cheesy, but cool. For some people, that might be worth it (But hint: It’s not). Just know that in order to get there you’ll have to wait 80-minutes before something happens, then spend the next 40 sitting through various chase scenes involving a synth soundtrack and one melee fight that uses cartoon sound effects for all the kicks and punches. I suggest some of you keep the fast-forward button at the ready or at the very least a liquor bottle handy.

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I’m convinced that somewhere deep within the depths of Fatal Exam there’s actually a decent “so bad it’s good” low-budget horror movie to be found. But you’d need a skilled editor to find it, because viewed as is, the film mostly feels more like some inexplicable endurance test. Couple the painfully long runtime with awful framing, wonky sound, dumb characters, and too many instances where absolutely nothing of consequence happens, and you end up with a film that at one time may have had potential, but ultimately ended up being a letdown. I’ll give the movie credit for its lofty ambitions, and I give the filmmakers mad respect for even managing to finish the movie when it’s clear they had close to nothing to work with, but it’s clear why this film has pretty much fallen into obscurity. Personally, I kinda like it, but I’m a weirdo. Most other horror fans will consider this skippable. If you really must check out all the supernatural slashers you can, or you just appreciate passion projects, then feel free to give this one a try. Just be prepared to skip through a lot of stuff if you want to save some of your sanity.

Fatal Exam is available on a variety of streaming services.

Fatal Exam is also available on a limited Bluray release, as part of Vinegar Syndome’s Home Grown Horrors Collection, Volume 1, alongside other cult classics Beyond Dream’s Door and Winterbeast.

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Michi

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