by Jack Sommersby
A search for a serial killer in Hawaii yields listless cinematic results.Final Examination is about a serial killer terrorizing five beautiful former sorority sisters during a five-year reunion at a plush hotel in Hawaii. Actually, it's sort of hard to tell at first what kind of film you've popped into your DVD player, for the film starts off with a woman crashing her car off a freeway, with the audience left with the impression that she's suicidally driven it off. We then forward five years, where a man doing a cocaine deal (right out in the open in the L.A. downtown streets!) only to double-cross the two dealers by jumping into his car and taking off (neither one with a gun tries to stop him before this!), leaving them with a suitcase full of confetti (as if they wouldn't have checked this before handing over the dope!); a high-speed car chase ensues, various automobiles and public property are destroyed, and it was here that I seriously considered ejecting the DVD to double-check the cover just to make sure the video-rental establishment hadn't given me the wrong disc. But soon all becomes clear: the man in question is actually a refuses-to-go-by-the-book L.A. cop, Shane Newman (Brent Huff), who, because of his demolition derby stunt and refusal to cooperate with the DEA on carrying out the bust, is reassigned by his sympathetic superior to Hawaii; and the woman at the beginning was actually part of the sorority that the current babes in Hawaii were part of. So when these self-absorbed, looking-for-Mr.-Goodrich honeys start getting offed by a fiend who leaves behind a final-examination paper with a grade of "Failed" at the crime scenes, the case naturally goes to Newman, along with his attractive partner, Julie Seska (Kari Wuhrer). The cops must also contend with a hotel manager who, like the mayor in Jaws, fears the negative publicity will deter tourist dollars, as well as their own political-influenced superiors, who demand quick results and minimal negative news exposure.
"Flunks Out Big Time"
The screenwriter, Sean O'Bannon, has a resume of mostly direct-to-video fodder, so it isn't too surprising that Final Examination is amateurish and disjointed. One can't be entirely sure whether the film is supposed to be a detective thriller or a slasher flick. If the former, it lacks enticing police-procedural details and a taut structure; and if the latter, it sorely lacks the unassuming air of trash, takes itself too seriously, and skimps on the gore factor. It's overwritten and chock-full of idiot dialogue, and as a whodunit it's whoppingly ineffective: you should be able to deduce the culprit's identity ten seconds into their very first appearance. Not picking up the ball any is director Fred Olen Ray, a very-veteran contributor to the direct-to-video circuit with an astonishing seventy-nine(!) films to his credit in only twenty-seven years; apparently, practice doesn't make perfect, even if it's spent making films by the elegiac likes of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Invisible Mom II. Granted, Final Examination isn't as badly made as most of Ray's stuff (the nadir of which - and this is saying something -- being the unctuous, unwatchable Evil Toons), but it's of his typical nondescript/no-brains variety nevertheless. The shots boast little in the way of compositional variety and ingenuity, the juxtaposing of scenes creates no forward momentum, and the tone varies like a weather vane's direction during a hurricane. Ray may have a true innate love for the film medium, for all I know, but he approaches his projects flaccidly and impersonally, as if they were mere stipends -- stepping stones, if you will -- to fund and maintain his dream mansion at the very top of the Hollywood Hills. One may be amazed that a director can manage to churn out as many as four films a year on average like Ray's managed -- and in eleven separate years, no less, with one year, 1997, yielding a total of eleven different Ray-directed films alone -- but when you're afforded a gander at the tripe being produced, it wouldn't be unfair to equate it with the processing of industrial sausages.
Hardly anything in the film works right. The set-ups to the murders are fudged because Ray, through his use of POV shots of the killer, makes us privy to the fact that the person being spied upon is about to be offed; if he could effectively conjure up suspense regardless, then fine, but his all-thumbs attempts only compound the problem. The murders themselves lack invention -- a bloodless strangulation and shot of an after-stabbed body lack the scurrilous kick necessary in the slasher sub-genre. And though there's plenty of nudity, the sex scenes (sans pubic hair -- the bastards!) are unerotic and hampered by too many cuts and camera movements repetitiously panning up and down the limbs (it's third-rate Zalman King stuff, and King's stuff isn't exactly first-rate to begin with). A subplot is introduced (just what trashy films need!) involving a former academic counselor that transports us from Hawaii back to L.A., and just so another car chase can take place. (To be fair, Ray shows some flair with the chases, which is probably why he filmed the extraneous things in the first place.) And the initial cracking of the case cannot be the actual cracking of it because it occurs a bit too early before the end of the running time, so we, as opposed to the cops, have a mental alarm go off that it's a red herring. At least the two leads are attractive and appealing, though. Huff manages to pull off a couple of tired balled-out-by-his-commander scenes with some deftness, and his charisma is rather enchanting. As for the beautiful, always-welcome Wuhrer, instead of going full frontal (Vivid, see review) she goes the fully-clothed route here (well, except for the waist-up part of a nightie -- big frigging deal), but at least her sinfully seductive thin eyebrows are on fine-as-ever display in addition to her ingratiating screen presence and effortless appeal. She and Huff deserve better. So does even the most undemanding of audiences.I think even "Scooby-Doo" showcased better island scenery than this.
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originally posted: 09/01/04 02:56:21