Thursday, October 8, 2015

Shocktober Revisited: The Final Terror

There's no certainty that people would even know that The Final Terror existed today, were it not for the fact that most of its cast of young stars went on to bigger and better roles a few years later. In fact, The Final Terror was shelved in 1980 and not released for another two years, and only then because it suddenly had "name" talent in it. It's not hard to see why producers might find the film hard to sell - it just barely qualifies as a "slasher" film - but there's a scrappy, underdog quality to The Final Terror that makes it worthwhile. Coupled with some soon to be well known names was director Andrew Davis, who these days is probably better known for The Fugitive, but back then still had a keen eye for visuals, which is important considering the entire movie takes place in the woods.

 Forest rangers Mike (Mark Metcalf), Nathaniel (Ernest Harden, Jr.), Boone (Lewis Smith), Zorich (John Friedrich), and newcomer Marco (Adrian Zmed) are heading up for a weekend of clearing brush and river rafting in the Pacific Northwest*. Against the advice of their mechanic, Eggar (Joe Pantoliano), they decide to bring along some girls: Windy (Daryl Hannah), Melanie (Cindy Harrell), Margaret (Rachel Ward), and Vanessa (Akosua Busia). They also choose one of the most remote paths back to where Eggar is going to take the bus, and during campfire storytelling, Boone shares the story of a crazed old woman who escape from the local asylum and lives in the woods. But it turns out that might not just be a story...

 There's actually nothing supernatural about The Final Terror (which is pretty ambiguous based on its poster what the "terror" is supposed to be - aliens?), and by the twenty minute mark, before anybody's been killed (although Marco goes missing) we have a general idea who the backwoods slasher is or is going to be. You can actually guess even earlier than that based on clues that are not so subtly dropped on the way to the woods, or the fact that one character is clearly more deranged than everyone else. Still, Davis does a good job of misdirection throughout the movie, causing you to wonder if Boone's story is entirely accurate, or if there's a Psycho-esque angle at play. And when the kills do start, they are pretty brutal. There's actually a pre-credit double kill of two unrelated characters that Davis shot when producers informed him the body count (three) was "too low" for a slasher film.

 The Final Terror is nevertheless more "survival horror" than "slasher film," and it hews more along the lines of Walter Hill's Southern Comfort than something like The Burning. Most of the movie is spent with our protagonists trying to outrun the killer and make it back to the bus (their alternative is a 45 mile hike), with military enthusiast Zorich becoming the de facto leader and resorting to survivalist tactics. The end of the film is more or less a showdown in the middle of the woods that, in the ensuing three decades, is unfortunately going to remind a lot of people of Predator, even though The Final Terror had it beat by six years. Aside from a few tense sequences on the bus and a few good kills early on, you'd be hard pressed to really include The Final Terror in the "classic" slasher era.

 On the other hand, you probably noticed in the synopsis just how many names you recognized, even if vaguely. After Zmed's career took off with TJ Hooker and Daryl Hannah figured prominently in Blade Runner (and would make it big with Splash the following year), The Final Terror was deemed worthy of cashing in on, but they're far from the only recognizable names. Joe Pantoliano would appear in Risky Business the same year, and go on to memorable roles in The Goonies, Midnight Run, The Matrix, and The Fugitive (again directed by Davis). Rachel Ward had already appeared in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Sharky's Machine, and would star opposite Jeff Bridges in Against All Odds the following year. Mark Metcalf might not be a name you recognize, but he was both Niedermeyer in Animal House and The Master on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even less familiar names, like Ernest Harden, Jr. went on from The Jeffersons to The Final Terror and would pop up in White Men Can't Jump and J. Edgar. Lewis Smith who, coincidentally, joined the cast of Southern Comfort after filming this, would go on to make North and South and appeared in Wyatt Earp.

 In that regard, it's fun to watch The Final Terror and see so many people on the cusp of stardom or, barring that, recognize-ability. It's similar to The Burning, which was the film debut of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens, although the end product is perhaps less memorable. I don't want to give the impression that this film is a long lost gem (although it has been MIA for a while) - at best it's a pretty good thriller / suspense film with some horror elements. It's well shot, has a pretty good pace, and an ending that doesn't disappoint, but I'd hesitate to leapfrog The Final Terror to the top of my "horror" list. Still, I'm glad I got the chance to check it out, and if you've seen everything under the full moon, this one is worth seeking out for a throwback to when "slasher" was a little more nebulous in its formula.

 * I don't recall if it's specifically stated in the film, but The Final Terror was shot in Northern California and Oregon.

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