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Old 08-27-2011, 12:00 PM
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Final Exam (Scorpion Releasing)





Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: August 27, 2011

Released by: Scorpion
Release date: September 20, 2011
MSRP: $19.95
Region 1, NTSC
Progressive Scan
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
1981



It’s funny how the critical consensus for a film can change in just a few years. Before college slasher Final Exam’s tardy trip to DVD in 2008, you couldn’t buy a good review for the film. If you go back in our forum archives, you’ll see a distinct displeasure for all things Exam related. That all started to change after BCI’s affectionate DVD, which brought together the cast for the extras and in a way romanticized the film and the slasher era in which it was made. It went over well with slasher fans, and while there were still noticeable detractors, it was clear the film was winning many horror fans over. Demand for the film would reach an even greater high when, only a few months after Final Exam’s release, BCI Deimos started having financial troubles and the film quickly and quietly went out of print. For slasher fans who bought into the film right away it was no problem, but for those who waited…as the tagline goes “God help the rest.”


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Until now. In what was a huge surprise announcement earlier this year, Scorpion Releasing announced that they now had the rights to this and many other notable slashers (The House on Sorority Row, Humongous, American Nightmare), and that Radish and the Wildman would be wild once more on DVD in September. Not only is Final Exam now back in circulation, but it has also been given a brand new transfer and extras. You can probably count on your hands how many slasher films have been released twice on DVD, and you’d probably need even less than that to count how many have received two special editions. But here it is, one of my most favorite of slashers, again available for slasher fans the world over. But one question remains, though…does this disc pass the test?

The Story


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This might sound familiar. A college couple are making out in a convertible on a serene summer’s night. A killer steps out from behind a tree to see the sin. Yeah, we know what’s coming. Then, out of nowhere, there’s this amazingly drawn out, almost absurd if it weren’t so inexplicably sincere lover’s quarrel about the man’s feelings for his date. “Do you love me?” She asks. He sort of mumbles. She asks again. Then again. Then again until finally she gets some sort of a response. This continues until finally a union is inaugurated. And then the killer rips open the top, drags the guy onto the roof of the car, and stabs the shit out of him right in front of his necking partner. Throw out that cheat sheet, though, because from this point on, this Exam is completely different.


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That was a different college, we’re now at Lanier College, where everyone’s gearing up for final Exams. There’s the mop top nerd complete with pocket protector and flamboyant confidence, Radish (Joel S. Rice). Yeah, Radish. Then there’s his wholesome friend and Final Girl, Jamie Lee Curtis clone Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi). There’s the jock who needs to get an 82% so his parents will keep making car payments, the hot girl who sleeps her way through to good grades, and finally Wildman (Ralph Brown). Think Bluto from Animal House, Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds and an autistic Jack Russell terrier melded into a trinity of frat boy awesome. He eats shaving cream, applies deodorant outside of his clothes and gets off by pouring ice cubes down pledges’ underpants. He’s a legend. Before the killer gets him and the others though, Wildman pulls off one of the greatest stunts in campus movie history.


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In order to help his buddy get that 82%, Wildman organizes a truck load of his jock buddies to storm the campus with machine guns shooting down accomplices armed with squibs in one huge faux mass murder. Before Virgnia, Taber and Columbine, someone thought it was a good idea to pretend to shoot ten people in a campus courtyard just so buddy could get enough time to hand in his forged 82% test. That’s elaborate, and that’s awesome. That’s Wildman. He’s not done yet, though. He’s got to tie one of the pledges naked to a tree and then try to find some speed for a couple paying freshman. We’re at 40 minutes and nobody has died yet.


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It doesn’t really speed up much, either, since Radish and Courtney have a few heart to hearts in her dorm about the state of the world, the nature of death, and just how pretty her hair looks. He even lets her try some of his Scottish whiskey. There’s also some drama with the C. Thomas Howell-looking pledge who’s been tied to a tree. Apparently he gave his belle, Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch), his pledge pin, and she’s not sure if she wants to move that fast! But enough is enough, the chubby stalker with a green jacket and jeans is ready to ominously walk his way into a sizable body count.


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This is the first movie on the site I’ve given four paragraphs to in synopsis, and it probably deserves a few more. Formula just does not apply here, and its eccentricities are many and its delights even more so. It shifts gears like a twelve year old in a standard, jumping from romance to horror, frat comedy to character drama, stalling in a shoot ‘em up and then finally kicking back into slasher. It’s just crazy, and it’s all the better for it.


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All the frat fun for the first half hour sort of predates Hostel in its genre bending mesh of college comedy and horror, replacing the usual lulls after the post-opening kill with some amusing bits of location setting and character development. Director Jimmy Huston does not skimp on the latter, and it’s all the elongated bits of character moments, from Wildman’s savage one shot where he seemingly eats every bit of set dressing regardless of whether it’d edible or not to Radish and his conspiracy theories that really sets the movie apart. All these characters rise well above their clichéd archetypes to create slasher characters you can actually tell apart, and actually care about. Wildman and Radish are forever in my great character lexicon, and Radish’s weird love confession to Courtney is no doubt one of the most awkwardly touching moments in slasher lore. I love this film because I love these characters.


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If I’m gushing over characters, then respect must be given to Timmy Raynor, who played the hefty, always walking sometimes judo chopping killer. I’ve always maintained that the killers you could pull off the street are the scariest, which is why other burly killers like Madman Marz or Lt. Chris McCabe from Don’t Answer the Phone make such convincing villains. This chubby party crasher is made even better though, by his ambiguity. He never speaks, never has a motive or never comes out of shadow. He’s the killer made abstract. He’s not just an elemental Example of Robin Wood’s return of the repressed. He is repression. The love tryst at the start, the test cheating, the whiskey drinking, the pill stealing, the test stealing and the love unfulfilled all get their due visit from punishing fate, and that dark motiveless killer makes it all the more blunt. This isn’t about a pretentious twist non-twist like The Strangers. This is taking the Id and giving it a shape. Courtney’s a psych major, after all.


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The killer keeps coming, but again, there’s no formula. What makes the film so watchable is that it feels nearly plotless, almost reality show-like in its focus on the now rather than the outcome or the message. It’s about kids in college who just happen to fall victim to a force stalking the campus. It’s both amazingly simple in approach, and amazingly abstract, depending on whether you’re looking at it from the kids’ or the killer’s perspective. It’s all so blithe though, and every so often you just want to dust off Final Exam and give it another spin. How’s Radish doing with his conspiracy theories? What pranks does Wildman have up his sleeve next? And just how on earth does the stocky killer cut a guy down from the trunk of a tree, only to emerge seconds later from the top branch? Such is the awe of Final Exam.


Image Quality


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The transfer on the BCI disc was far from magna cum laude, with a general softness and some roughness and inconsistencies in the blacks (of which there are a lot in a movie like this). But it was a colorful and vivid one, which is far from what one would expect from a slasher (especially back in 2008). Fans were happy, so it came as quite the surprise that this new DVD was going to start from scratch with a fresh HD sourced transfer. Well folks, Scorpion made the right choice. This transfer is a major improvement. Where to start? The first thing you’ll notice is that the frame has been opened up some, which is nice since the film was always displayed open matte on video. It’s 1.78:1 now, and not only are the small black crops from the original DVD absent, but the actual negative has been zoomed out to display more info. What’s even better is that the actual frame seems to have been manipulated scene to scene resulting in better headroom and composition during shots. Look no further than the shot of the killer in the kitchen to see this in action.


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You’ll also notice in that shot that black levels and detail are also very much improved on this second pass, since you can now make out some of the killer’s facial features (where before he was in crushed blacks) and the overall image just displays crisper detail across all parts. This is true with all the stills and the film itself, it’s a lot better to look at. While bitrates between the two films are about equal, there are far less compression artifacts this time around, and the picture is just overall sharper, cleaner and more catching to the eye. In our era of hidef, the idea of upgrading a DVD from a previous one is becoming increasingly less realistic. Surely the upgrade couldn’t be that pronounced in SD, right? Final Exam proves that wrong though – the upgrade in quality really is evident from the first frame. The newfound clarity and detail really adds a lot to the picture and enhances what had always been before a very darkly shot film. The upgrade is major.


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That said, I can’t give this Exam a perfect score. While it improves in nearly every facet, the color timing sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. This new transfer is lacking the vibrancy of the old, where sometimes scenes seem a little too brown or earthy than they ought to be. Whites aren’t quite as white as they should be either. That’s the only red ink I can write on this one, though, and all things considered the coloring is still much better than most films of this ilk ever receive. The fact remains that this is a scholarly upgrade over the BCI disc. Bravo.


Sound


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The audio also gets a bit of a lift the second time around. While on paper it’s still just a mono track, this one exhibits a fuller, crisper sound, with less muffle and more fidelity. Higher notes in the dialogue still come across as shrill at times, but everything is a lot easier to discern this time around. Another section passed!


Supplemental Material

inline ImageWhile this disc retains the three excellent cast interviews from the BCI release, Scorpion has also introduced a few new features of its own. The first is their inaugural unveiling of the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” extra that they’ll be incorporating into a number of their releases this year and beyond. The concept behind it is a fun one – like with Elvira or other horror hosts, Katarina Leigh Waters sets up the film with a topical location backdrop and some small factoids and provocations. Then, after the film is completed, she gives us another bit of video commentary to lead us out. This in effect gives an importance and a communal quality to the viewing of the film, much in the same way a television airing of a favorite film you already own on a better format is still somehow better when watched “live” on broadcast TV.

inline ImageJust the mere inclusion of such pieces help add to the fun of the film, and they could have been even more had Katarina been the horror fan that Elivra, or for my fellow Canucks out there, those Scream TV hosts, are. While Katarina proves to be game for playing the part of the jovial horror host, you can see that while I’m sure she appreciates the opportunity and exposure, her heart isn’t totally into it. The facts she mentions before the film seem more scripted or researched than they do culled from actual interest. Nothing she says is all that informative or revealing, either. But the fact remains that this is an extra, and optional, flourish that at worst is forgettable and at best introduces a fun way to keep the jovial excitement of experiencing horror cinema alive. I'm interested to see on how this extra continues on to future titles.

Katarina isn’t done just at the intro/extro; she also moderates an all new commentary track with Producer Myron Meisel. It’s an entirely different beast than the nostalgic, reactive cast commentary from the previous disc. While Meisel doesn’t quite have the appeal as the cast, he makes up for it with a bevy of knowledge about how the whole production went down. He remembers A LOT, and a lot of it is quite scandalous, and he holds nothing back. Whether he’s talking about his disagreements with Director Jimmy Houston or how the film got into hot water by starting out four days behind schedule, he’s very honest about the adversity they faced and how they dealt with it. Katarina has little to add other than some general questions, but Meisel carries himself so well she’s hardly needed. It’s a talky, engaging commentary that really does reveal a lot behind the making of the picture.

inline ImageThe fun grindhouse-era trailer and a few other trailers for films in the Katarina Nightmare Theater line round off the rest of the disc along with the aforementioned interviews with the three stars, Cecile Bagdadi, Joel Rice and Sherry Willis-Burch. On its own this release features a fine spattering of extras, but the exclusion of the old commentary is still somewhat of a drag. There really isn’t any other commentary as wonderful as the ones that reunite several cast members to share their experience in watching a film that they had mostly forgotten. While the new commentary is more than a good substitute, not having the cast commentary here means that the old, expensive, out of print disc is still going to hold some worth to fans of the picture.

It must also be noted that the sleeve is reversible with the only difference being the removal of the “Katarina’s Nightmare Theater” banner from the top cover. Not a big deal, but horror fans can be picky and Scorpion shows they care about their fanbase with a small perk like that.


Final Thoughts


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While Final Exam may not be top of the class like other important slashers like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Madman or My Bloody Valentine, it’s still a highly entertaining picture with an engaging class roster, some fun pranks to bolster the first act and a dark, unexplained tone of menace to take the film the rest of the way. Scorpion Releasing clearly studied hard for this release, and they delivered with a majorly improved audio and video transfer and a fun experience with the new Katarina Nightmare Theater play mode. Those who could not enroll in the first release before it went OOP should snap this new one up immediately, and even those with the old disc are going to want to seriously consider upgrading for the new transfer. Pick it up…the Wildman says so!


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Rating

.
Movie - A-

Image Quality - A-

Sound - B

Supplements - B+




Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Rated R
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English mono

Supplements
  • Audio commentary with producer Myron Meisel and moderator Katarina Leigh Waters
  • Katarina's Nightmare Theater intro/extro
  • Interviews with Joel Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Scorpion trailers

Other Pictures

 

 

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Old 08-31-2011, 08:54 AM
Moderator
You probably read that here, ronnie, since that's what Code Red had said a handful of years ago when they first came to the board and members were asking them questions. They had posited at the time that it would never be released because of the mafia who owned it, but lucky for all of us that didn't quite prove true.
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Can't argue with a confident man.
 
 
Old 09-05-2011, 07:13 AM
Screamy Bopper
My god that's a substantial difference. I know I should be thankful to have this at all but I'll be damned if those grabs don't make me straight-up long for a (whispers) ...blu-ray.
 
 
Old 09-30-2011, 05:16 AM
Victim
I have the Embassy VHS, the Nelson Entertainment VHS, and the BCI DVD. I can't believe its released again but I'll get it for a cheap price if I see it

I'm surprised they didn't try to get the killer for an interview. Timothy Rayner contacted Justin from Hysteria Lives to do an interview with him a few years ago

I'm dying to hear the new commentary though and the picture quality upgrade looks really good
 
 

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