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TCM Underground - March 2019
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Remind Me

Final Exam

Friday July, 26 2019 at 02:15 AM

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Made just a couple of years after Halloween (1978) spawned a generation of low-budget horror films, Final Exam (1981) follows the tradition of 1980s slasher movies with a few variations on the theme. Set at a small Southern college as the campus empties out during exam week, the film is filled with a ready-made cast of potential victims wandering an increasingly lonely landscape. There's a smart girl, a sexy girl, bullying jocks, arrogant frat boys, a philandering professor, a drawling sheriff, a nerdy overachiever with a ghoulish fascination with serial killers and a collection of horror movie posters in his dorm room and a silent killer whose strength, reflexes and sheer unstoppable drive border on the supernatural. It's all set to an ominous score with a minimalist piano in the John Carpenter mold.

The film was shot in North Carolina but auditions for the leading roles were conducted in Los Angeles. Top-billed Cecile Bagdadi was cast as the practical Courtney after the producers saw her in a stage production of Faces on the Wall at the Coronet Theatre. Recalling the film years later, Bagdadi remarked that she screamed so convincingly in her audition that she was called back to overdub the screams of other actresses throughout the film. It was her film debut and she was given the Star of Tomorrow Award by the National Theater Association, but her career never really took off. After a couple of TV appearances, she returned to the stage for a few years then retired from professional acting to raise her child.

Joel S. Rice, who plays the nerdy Radish, also made his professional debut in Final Exam, but he only appeared in a few additional screen roles before stepping behind the camera as a prolific producer of television films, including the Aurora Teagarden Mystery series and over a dozen Christmas romances for the Hallmark Channel. Reflecting back on his career, he noted that he initially turned to producing to create roles for himself but ended up embracing the producer's role. "I could have an impact on what kind of movies I did and who was involved in it. It really suited me as I became an adult."

Timothy L. Raynor was cast as the killer for his martial arts background--after a tour of duty in the Navy, he opened his own martial arts studio and trained a tournament team--and he took charge of the choreography of the fight scenes and served as the primary stuntman on the production.

The film was written and directed by Jimmy Huston, who went on to direct My Best Friend Is a Vampire (1987) and write the action comedy Running Scared (1986) starring Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines. Producer Myron Meisel is better known as a film historian and film critic. Among his subsequent credits is It's All True (1993), the award-winning documentary about the legendary unfinished film by Orson Welles, which he co-produced and co-directed.

Final Exam was shot over six weeks in the fall of 1979 in Shelby, North Carolina, at the Earl Owensby's E. O. Motion Picture Studios and on location at Isothermal Community College, which provided the exteriors of the fictional Lanier College. Local students were cast as extras and members of the crew were drafted in for some shots. The film was shot in sequence and the actors left the production as their characters were killed off. The cast turned it into something of a game, singing "Another One Bites the Dust" after each death scene.

Though the film received generally negative reviews upon release, it became a minor cult classic over the years for its variations on the slasher movie tropes. This killer wears no mask (though he does sport a haircut that anticipates Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, 2007) and has no apparent motive. His face is visible yet utterly anonymous. Final Exam was cited in Scream 2 (1997) by Jamie Kennedy's character Randy, a horror movie buff who may have been at least partially inspired by the character of Radish in this film. Director Huston, meanwhile, left film production and became a successful author of children's books.

Sources:
Audio commentary with Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi, and Sherry Willis-Burch, Final Exam Blu-ray. Shout! Factory, 2014.
Video interview with Joel S. Rice, Final Exam Blu-ray. Shout! Factory, 2014.
Video interview with Cecile Bagdadi, Final Exam Blu-ray. Shout! Factory, 2014.
Video interview with Sherry Willis-Burch, Final Exam Blu-ray. Shout! Factory, 2014.
AFI Catalog of Feature Film
IMDb

By Sean Axmaker

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