Say, did you ever see that movie where a bunch of attractive young people go on a camping trip and are picked off one-by-one by a shadowy, inbred maniac? No, not that one.
Not that one either.
The movie I’m referring to is 1983’s The Final Terror. Which was originally shot in 1981 and then finally released under the various titles of Three Blind Mice, The Creeper, The Campsite Murders and The Forest Primeval. It wasn’t shelved because it was bad, per ce, but because of the ‘80s slasher movie glut and the studios thought it might be best if they sat on it until some of its young stars got famous. Yes, okay, Mark Metcalf was already a beloved figure thanks to 1978’s Animal House, but it would be a few more years until his turn in that Twisted Sister video. But Sam Arkoff and Joe Roth were prescient; they just knew that within a year or two, Darryl Hannah, Rachel Ward, Joe Pantoliano, hell, even Adrian Zmed—would all be super respected, bankable and literally household names (except for Pantoliano, because to this day no one can pronounce his name correctly and refer to him as “Joey Pants”. True.).
Until then, their literally and figuratively dark morality tale of the forestry industry would just have to wait. And wait it did.
But even then, from the time of its conception and release, The Final Terror’s story about sex and slaughter in the forest was nothing really new. It certainly wasn’t the “final” anything, given the success-range of countless others before and after. It doesn’t even corner the market on the upcoming-stars cast list (that honor may have to go to The Burning, featuring performances by Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, etc.). In point of fact, exchange “young forest rangers in training” with “camp counselors”, “spelunkers”, “smoke jumpers” or even “horny botanists”, and you have roughly the same movie as every other ‘80s gorefest.
But there’s something about The Final Terror that makes it stand out from the crowd. Maybe it’s the direction by future Under Seige and The Fugitive helmer Andrew Davis. Perhaps it’s the naturalistic lighting, making the beautiful California forest deceptively safe during the day and claustrophobic and foreboding during the very dark night scenes. Certainly, the cast helps, though Pantoliano has the best lines as the creepy driver Eggar, while Ward and Hannah barely have a dozen lines between them. Zmed is given far too much screentime, but that can be said about any movie he’s in, really.
It’s not that The Final Terror feels slicker or smarter than it’s ‘80s hack-em-up brethren. Heck, it isn’t even all that gory. So what is it about the sum of its meager parts makes it so enjoyable?
The MacGuffin of getting the characters out into nowhere is literally that. A routine work detail brings rangers-in-training to the forest, after a brief stop to pick up their girlfriends en route. After some character-defining bickering and the establishment that driver/mechanic Eggar is a by-the-numbers-weaselly-asshole, they finally make camp. The game plan is to reblaze a trail and then raft downriver where Eggar will retrieve them via his bus. Around the campfire, they talk about the local legend of a crazy woodswoman who raised a wilderness child and sent him off to live among people while she stayed amongst nature and killed hikers. Something about this pisses Eggar off so he climbs into the bus and into the night.
The story somehow manifests the legend to life, because before too long, an unseen force begins picking them off. We the audience see the killer in brief glimpses—a shape covered in fur and foliage, able to blend into the background, appearing as a mound of moss on a river stone, a clump of leaves on the forest bed. It springs to murder with sudden viciousness as its victims usually sit down right by it.
After two of their friends are slaughtered and one goes missing (for a time, he’s actually harvesting wild marijuana), the group becomes convinced that Eggar is behind it all, his brain finally snapped. From then on, the remaining most malcontent of the bunch, Zorich, puts himself in charge. A survivalist, he leads them to their final stand in a natural gully, where they woodland combat perfected by picts and ewoks—swinging logs, spear-pits, survival knives, etc.
And then suddenly, their hopes and dreams are destroyed when they discover it’s not really Eggar behind it, but someone very else. Maybe even crazier than either Eggar or Zorich or Zmed’s agent.
Davis uses the scenery to his advantage and minimizes the clichés when possible. Where many of its fellows go for the pile of mutilated bodies, The Final Terror keeps the body-count to the minimum. After the first couple of victims, the group opts for not splitting up to cover more ground. The unseen killer is used to great effect—it is not an unkillable invisible force, but could literally be anywhere as it stalks the rangers. The device makes every footstep beside every rock a moment of tension. Davis’ direction and the script by Jon George, Neill D. Hicks and Ronald Shusett refuses to play the clichés that we’re used to. Even in 1983, audiences were savvy to the fake scare-then-real scare formula, the creepy point-of-view, the sudden jump, all leading up to a single survivor girl. But The Final Terror frequently tosses that all on its ear. For some viewers, IMDb critics, for instance, this all adds up to “boring”, a movie where “nothing really happens”, “with almost no gore”. For the rest of us, this recipe results in a welcome and unexpected nail-biter.
Granted, The Final Terror is no masterpiece and it’s nearly forgotten today by all but the most encyclopedic of horror fans. The official DVD came and went in 2005 and fetches upwards of $40 through the official channels. The original VHS often runs just as high. (Althought you can watch it in parts or in whole online at places like YouTube and Dailymotion, if that's good enough for you.) I suppose the name Adrien Zmed just doesn’t carry the weight it used to. But it’s a taut, worthy thriller that has earned its place in horror history and deserves a reissue, if only for the day-for-night siege on the bus that had me, at least, on the edge of my seat. Like the rest of the film, even though I had seen that sequence in countless other movies, because of the way it zigged and zagged, I really hadn’t seen it before. That’s the best part of The Final Terror: you have no idea where the old and overgrown trail is going to lead.