Monday, July 12, 2021

“Combining the Supernatural with Physics” - Fatal Exam (1990) - Film #208

Today's entry in the annals of Senseless Cinema is the St. Louis-set Fatal Exam (1990), directed by Jack Snyder, who would later direct several films and TV movies, and in fact claim in his IMDB biography that his first film was the St. Louis-shot Ghost Image (2007). Fatal Exam is a fine example of regional filmmaking made with character and intelligence and the presumably overwhelming urge to make sure the audience understands everything that is going on at every second, even if this requires characters to repeat the same information dozens of times.

Oddly, some of your universe's critics mistake the film's clarity for dullness. For example, reviewer itchy_cnp writes, "This movie is excruciatingly turned into an endurance exercise." Reviewer allentitinik-83208 writes, "No idea what I just watched." And reviewer Eric Cotenas of DVD Drive-In writes, "FATAL EXAM is "fatally" overlong and flat-out boring at 114 minutes."

Of course, a film like Fatal Exam is to be savored, and critics with taste would never complain about its length. Please read on for a proper appreciation of Fatal Exam...

In the opening, a young (that is to say, younger than middle-aged) shirtless man lies in bed, tossing and turning in his sleep as something bangs against the front door of his house. He pulls on a robe, runs down the stairs, and flings open the door, only to see a mustachioed man with a bloody hand wielding a sword.

The film cuts to the opening credits, after which the young man from the opening, Nick, is awakened by a news report on the radio indicating a local man named Larson has announced his candidacy for the presidency of the U.S., a news item reiterated in the morning newspaper. Nick drives to college in his station wagon and meets his friend Roger and his sister Dana. Nick goes to the final in his parapsychology class, prompting Roger to quip somewhat flatly, “What kind of final can you have for a parapsychology class? Answering questions through telepathy?”

“More like telepathetically, in your case,” Dana says. Then she and Roger enter the same classroom, where they are also enrolled in parapsychology.

As class begins (though there appears to be a radio left on somewhere, as disembodied tinny voices drone continuously), Professor Hughes (who may or may not be the mustachioed sword-wielded from the opening) makes a proposal to the students: “I have a final exam for you. More a project than an exam. Something you cannot study for. Something you cannot fail. Something I can’t even make you do, if you do not desire to. But if you do agree to do it, you could not only end up with the most memorable college experience of your lives, but you could end up being written about in parapsychology magazines, from the popular publications to the more scientific journals.”

(The proposal is notable for the record number of sentences ending in prepositions.)

The professor tells a story about family named Nostrand that lived in a country house. The family was butchered in the house with a sword, and the only survivor was the family’s nurse. The house is rumored to be haunted, and the “government” paid the university to study the house, so the parapsychology class is invited to investigate the haunted house. “Any questions?” the professor asks.

One of the students asks, perhaps awkwardly, “Which weekend will this take place on?”

Professor Hughes launches into a long explanation and explication of the logistics of the assignment, after which several students volunteer. After all details are settled, the film cuts to the Friday of the weekend of the visit to the Nostrand house. Nick, his sister, and Roger pack for the trip, putting their bags and, of course, a shovel into the back of Nick’s station wagon. Roger also reveals he is bringing a revolver, in reaction to which Nick asks if they will be playing Russian Roulette. “Whatever,” Roger replies (the standard response to a mention of Russian Roulette).

The trio drives to the Nostrand house, joking about Roger’s yo-yo habit and sexual frustration. (Though well established, Roger's yo-yo habit is unfortunately never paid off.) Based on the number of dissolves, it takes several hours to reach their destination, a rural stone mansion with a sundial in front that the camera zooms into and holds on for quite some time.

The trio finds the rest of the students sitting around a front room. After some awkward interactions, Nick and Dana are the only ones who explore the house. They find the bedroom where Malcolm Nostrand murdered his wife—there is even a framed photographic portrait of Nostrand hanging above the bed, a portrait that resembles the sword wielded from Nick’s dream. Nick and Dana take their time discovering a dollhouse in Nostrand’s daughter’s room, where Dana finds a doll-sized book, among other items.

After Nick and Dana’s exploration, another student explains in great detail how he is setting up video equipment throughout the mansion (after the group establishes at least three times that the house has working electricity and running water). Then the rest of the group decides to check out the house, despite the fact they were disinterested not five minutes earlier. While the students check out the upstairs en masse, Nick, Dana, and Roger check out the basement. Roger quips, “Nostrand probably killed his wife ‘cause…she didn’t clean the basement.”

Nick says, “This place having electricity doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the light bulbs that bother me.”

“Yeah,” Roger replies, “I know what you mean. What do you mean?”

“This house more or less been deserted for two years. Over two years, right? All the light bulbs work. None of them are burnt out, at least in the rooms I’ve been in. They don’t even have dust on them.”

The video technician, Dave, enters the basement to set up a microphone. “My interests lie in electronics,” he explains, “which from a scientific point of view makes it unlikely that anything that can’t be rationally explained will be recorded. On the other hand, I’ve read quite a few books on the supernatural in my high school years—I was a bit of a fanatic on the occult and UFOs but I take it all with a grain of salt now. But you never know. We might record something.”

At night, everyone sleeps in their sleeping bags in the front room with the lights turned on (proving yet again the house has working electricity). The place is strewn with balloons for unexplained reasons. One of the students wakes up, opens (again, for unexplained reasons) a cabinet door under the coffee table, and reveals a severed head inside.

The student yells about the head, but when Nick investigates he finds only a styrofoam head. Everyone goes back to sleep, including the traumatized student.

In the morning, Dave, who eats a traditional “power breakfast” consisting of Hostess cupcakes and a Pepsi, works at his electronics station and plans to fast forward through his video tapes to see if anything happened overnight.

The others walk through the house again. In Nostrand’s bedroom, Nick pulls a sheet off a chest of drawers, opens one out of eight or ten drawers, then covers the furniture with the sheet again. After Roger complains, “This is burning,” Nick points out Nostrand’s portrait.

“Looks normal to me,” Roger says.

“Except for that medallion,” Dana says. “It looks like something someone would be—or should be—ashamed of wearing. Like it’s evil or something.”

After the group splits up, Nick and Roger discuss Dana and her emotional independence while Nick looks through a series of dresser drawers, in the bottom of which he finds a message etched into the plywood: “MN MURDERER ATTIC CHEST.”

Meanwhile , at the 44-minute mark, the filmmakers reveal the second supernatural occurrence (after the head in the coffee table). Dave finds an image on his videotape of a person dressed in some kind of superhero suit shuffling through the house last night.

Dana and the student who saw the severed head gather around Dave but, mildly curious, they say nothing. 

Following up on the message in the dresser, Nick and Roger go to the attic, where they find not a chest but a painting depicting some kind of cosmic occult ritual.

As Nick and Roger walk outside to investigate the apparent burial of something depicted in the painting, Roger jokes, “Hey, Nick, I heard you was going to the hemorrhoid convention. They’re looking for a few good assholes.”

Nick replies, “Hey, look, one of your relatives,” though we don’t see what he is indicating. Eventually, they trek through a field to find the spot indicated in the crude painting. Roger walks backward to find the correct spot; when he falls, Nick giggles. After roughly ten minutes of walking around, they look back at the house and see the windows flashing with white light. At the same time inside, the video equipment starts flashing, but after a minute or two everything goes back to normal. The film fades out, without anyone having dug up anything.

Later, the students debate in great detail whether anything supernatural is going on (a debate that hinges on the startling information that a flashlight has its own power source—a battery!). Dave the electronics expert theorizes about an inter dimensional door ripping through the fabric of reality (whatever that may be), causing waves of interference rippling outward from the doorway. He summarizes, “I extrapolated that bit of bullshit from combining the supernatural with physics.” He then plays back each track from his four-channel recorder to locate a metallic sound, a process we watch in real-time for the purpose of suspense building.

The others interpret the painting and realize that two couples are going to be sacrificed to a demon, one couple at noon and one couple at midnight (the date is not clear). Two of the student couples have disappeared, so the sacrifice must be imminent. Instead of sending anyone to get the police (a suggestion that is debated), the remaining students decide to remain in the house, presumably to stop the sacrifices. Meanwhile, the student who saw the head has another vision, this time of Mr. Nostrand wearing the superhero suit and using the sword to kill his wife.

When Nick climbs the stairs to investigate, he sees Nostrand. The ghost says, “Come on up! You’re next!”

Soon, everyone except Dave wants to leave the house (they do not mention contacting the police, though four people are missing). For no explained reason, Nick, Roger, and Dana decide to stay with Dave. However, shockingly, one of the missing couples strolls back into the house. The man, Sid, explains that he had previously seen the painting on microfilm in the library before leaving for the expedition, so he and his girlfriend went to the forest to dig up whatever was being buried in the painting (without mentioning their goal to anyone). The conversation continues about what to do next, and after much discussion the decision is made to explore the basement.

Which they proceeed to do, for an extended period of time, eventually finding a round hatch cover that appears to be made of silver-painted wood but squeals metallically, the sound recorded on Dave’s video. Opening the hatch, they find a dark hole and a rope ladder. After much more discussion and the gathering of supplies, the trio prepares to climb down the ladder, but they are in for a shocking surprise when Roger opens a cabinet and the handle of a scythe strikes him in the head!

Two people dressed in blacks attack Roger, Dana, and Dave with scythes. Nick, having run out to the car for flares and a flare gun, returns to find his friends gone. 

Elsewhere, in a suspenseful sequence, Jim and those driving to town find the abandoned car of the missing couple. The couple who had run off earlier (and knew a suspiciously great deal about the painting) kill Jim and his girlfriend with a razor and a knife.

Back at the Nostrand house, Nick wanders by himself for many minutes. He finds the dollhouse shown earlier and picks up a replica of the real dresser, finding a manifesto handwritten on loose-leaf paper folded inside the dollhouse furniture. Of course, it takes him some time to read through the three or four sheets of paper, a process that for some reason is accompanied by the hands of his wristwatch dissolving from 11:15 to 11:35, implying it takes 20 minutes (or, more likely, 12 hours and 20 minutes) to read the manifesto. Afterward, he walks downstairs to find the murderous Sid waiting for him, but Sid, wearing the sacrificial knife on his belt, explains everyone else has gone back to town. Meanwhile, Nick explains everything in the manifesto (actually Nostrand’s aunt’s notes) revealing Nostrand buried his fortune in the woods (apparently, the manifesto explains the same details that were shown in the painting). Also, there is a ceremonial room for human sacrifices underneath the house.

Sid pulls the knife on Nick. Nick escapes upstairs, locking himself in a bedroom. Sid, of course, explains everything. He killed Jim and the other woman at noon, and he plans to kill Dana and Roger at midnight. He also reveals that their teacher, Professor Hughes, possesses the medallion and is the villain behind everything.

“What could he possibly gain?” Nick cries out.

“It’s so the demon can come to full power,” Sid replies.

Instead of hiding in the room, Nick opens the door and fights with Sid, finally killing him in a complex manner involving the ritual dagger pointing out of a door (after many, many punches that sound generated by a 16-bit video game). Nick is then chased by a cloaked figure with a scythe. They run outside, where Nick stumbles upon Roger’s shovel. Eventually, he uses the shovel to knock out the robed figure, then returns to the basement and opens the hatch leading to the sacrifice room. He climbs down using a rope, but the rope comes untied at the last minute, trapping him underground.

After some wandering, Nick is attacked by another robed cult member and dragged to the ceremonial room. Inside the ceremonial room (or perhaps a black void, as it is difficult to tell), Professor Hughes, wearing the superhero outfit, confronts Nick.

“Is murder worth it?” Nick asks, quite reasonably.

“Yes, of course,” replies the professor. “For the power.”

“But what purpose does murder serve?”

“It’s the cost of that power. The sacrifices allow the demon to grant it to me. And to show my total conviction and devotion to him.” Hughes then explains why Nostrand was unsuccessful—not enough people were sacrificed by midnight, and his ghost was trapped in the house. 

Nick looks at his watch, which shows only a few minutes until midnight. Nick goads Hughes verbally, telling him the demon is just using him. Somehow, this works, and Hughes orders one of his cultists to cut Nick down, but Nick punches the cultist and escapes, running into the corridor to retrieve Roger's handgun. Nick shoots a few cultists, but Hughes’s power is enough to hypnotize Nick into lowering the gun. Then, as midnight arrives (indicated by grains of sand in an hourglass), for unexplained reasons Nick is able to control himself again. He shoots Hughes at the last second.

In a final, visionary sequence, Nick removes the medallion from Hughes’s neck, causing a stop-motion demon to appear.

Nick, not being unforgivably evil, throws the medallion at the demon, who laughs and says, “There are others who want the power. Your Hitlers, Napoleons, and Hitlers of the world waiting, praying…”

The demon sits down in a magic chair and vanishes. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Nick says. He helps Dana and Roger escape the tunnel and they drive away, but a coda reveals that Sid’s partner Stacey retrieves the medallion (which was sim play lying next to the wall). Stacey burns down the house for some reason, splashing gasoline on the ground and lighting a match (of course, we know the house burned down; we don’t need to see it).

Later, Nick turns off a TV news report. “That’s what bothers me,” he tells Dana and Roger. “Whatever happened to Stacey?”

The filmmakers cut to Stacy in a car writing a letter, then mailing the medallion to Senator Thomas Larson, the man mentioned at the beginning of the film as a potential candidate for President of the United States. 

According to IMDB, Fatal Exam was filmed in 1985, with its release delayed until 1990 due to the timeline required to complete the special effects. As a narrative, the film does seem indebted to The Evil Dead and other regional horror films from the early 1980s. However, few films are as careful with exposition and clear explanations as Fatal Exam, perhaps properly, as the film revolves around a college course. Most films with similar budgets and talent pools are not as ambitious with their world-building, and Fatal Exam benefits from the time it takes to detail the reasoning behind the demonic portal to hell and the dollhouse replicating aspects of the larger house. If a critique could be made, it might relate to the smaller amount of time used for character-building, as the characters' quirks and motivations never intersect with the main plot, despite the potential for interesting details. Roger, the yo-yo master, could have used his yo-yo to escape in the end, for example, or Dave the electronics expert could have used his skills to wire the house to somehow trap the demon. Alas, the film's nearly two-hour runtime did not allow for these additions. Unless director Jack Snyder were to grace us with an extended cut or perhaps a remake in miniseries form, we are left to admire Fatal Exam as it is, an effective and entertaining supernatural horror film that approaches but doesn't quite exceed the label "epic."