Thursday, October 13, 2016

FINAL EXAM


Writing a slasher film is a lot like preparing to make bland food. You wander through the aisles of the grocery store with your checklist of things you need to make your dinner, skimping on the quality of the ingredients in order to save a few bucks (hmm, a good quality character for $7.50 or an imitation character for $2.50… decisions, decisions…), pay for your bundle at the cash register and then head home, throw the whole thing in a pot and check back in 90 minutes. Once it’s done, you have successfully made food… but not good food. Slasher films like FINAL EXAM are checklist films through and through. Take one bookworm girl, a handful of jocks, a slutty blonde, a nerd, a couple of obnoxious teachers and a hulking killer, toss them all together according to a generic recipe and then let it do its thing for 90 minutes. Voila! You just made a film… but not a good film.

There really isn’t anything to separate FINAL EXAM from the rest of the pack. It’s just another serial killer on the loose story set on a nearly abandoned college campus. It takes the standard formula and runs with it. We have an opening murder, an extended stretch of film where we are introduced to the main characters, a bit of wandering around so we can learn the layout of the campus and then the killings start. There is a bit of FINAL EXAM in the DNA of the SCREAM series though. We have an obsessive nerd (in SCREAM, it was Randy, the horror movie nerd; here it’s Radish, a serial killer fanatic) whose interests clue him in on what is going on, a hazing prank that results in a character’s demise and the same kind of catty college nonsense that filled the empty moments of SCREAM 2. But FINAL EXAM lacks the kind of wit and charm that SCREAM and SCREAM 2 had in spades. The characters we are supposed to find funny, like the frat jocks who stage a fake school shooting just so their leader can cheat on his chemistry test, don’t come off as particularly amusing and the Final Girl is bland and uninteresting. It takes too long for the build-up to tip over into action and when the action comes, it’s little more than foot chases and strangulation. The one thing I did like about the film is that the killer is just a random guy who strolls into town, something that gives a kind of purity to the narrative as we don’t have to deal with red herrings, motives, etc.

FINAL EXAM is very anemic so there is little for slasher fans to rejoice over here. Writer/director Jimmy Huston instead goes for the HALLOWEEN approach, trying to build up suspenseful stalking sequences with his killer appearing in the background or foreground unexpectedly. While the progression of the action seems a bit off (try to keep track of the timeline here and your head will explode; the killer clearly walks halfway across campus, kills a kid, walks all the way back across campus, kills a kid, and then walks all the way back across campus to chase the Final Girl all in a matter of ten minutes), it progresses from Point A to Point B will relatively little fuss. That is probably what makes FINAL EXAM so easy to watch while simultaneously making it incredibly boring. Years and years of slasher film watching have made this a purely predictable formula. Everything happens exactly as it should. We’re only given one real surprise, a certain character’s death that goes against expectations (unless, of course, you’ve seen SCREAM 2). 

Just like how your mess of ingredients turned out to be edible, FINAL EXAM turns out to be watchable. It’s not good. The writing is just terrible, the acting is no better and the special effects are non-existent, but it plays the part just fine. I think the best word to use here would be “serviceable”. It’s serviceable. It just needed a bit more excitement to it, something to lift it out of first gear. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, it needed a bit more spice to it.

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