My rating: ★★☆☆☆
When it comes to 80’s and 90’s YA horror, I have read a lot of Fear Street–I daresay I’ve read most of Fear Street–but only a few in the subgenre that weren’t from Stine. One of those few is Final Exam, which I believe I originally read sometime between 2004 and 2006. I recently picked up a copy at a semi-local thrift store, and so here I am reading it again in 2012.
Final Exam is in most ways incredibly similar to the less supernaturally-inclined installments of the Fear Street franchise, and as most of my familiarity with the 80’s and 90’s teen-horror scene is through that franchise, the best way for me to express my opinion of Final Exam is to compare it to what I’ve been reading lately.
Imagine Final Exam as a Fear Street plot placed in the hands of a writer other than Stine. It’s really an interesting study at its core; the plot of Final Exam is incredibly similar to one of Stine’s plots. All the same elements are there:
1) the Everygirl protagonist
2) the gorgeous and popular sister
3) the gorgeous but possibly dangerous love interest
4) the loyal but increasingly suspicious best friend
5) the abusive ex-boyfriend with anger management issues and stalker tendencies
6) the “sixth ranger”–i.e., that other guy
The Everygirl Protagonist
In Fear Street installments, the main characters are almost entirely interchangeable. They are as devoid of personality as Bella Swan, and their taste in men is just as terrible (but more on that later). Final Exam suffers similarly; Kelly’s personality is just “normal girl”. It’s Kelly’s passion that sets her apart from Stine protagonists.
While Stine tried every once in a while to make his protagonists unique from one another, he opted for the physical or circumstantial. They might be exceptionally beautiful yet still unpopular. Others might be sporty or (referred to as) smart. Many were “the new girl”. One was blind.
Kelly is a mechanic. That shouldn’t be as mind-blowing as it is, but Bates actually bothered to give his character a passion and a skill, something she enjoys and does besides boys. After reading about the same guy-obsessed vapid Girl Next Door over and over again in Stine’s books, it’s refreshing to see a girl who at least has something to define her, if only a tiny something.
The Gorgeous and Popular Sister
Susan is Kelly’s younger sister. She’s got looks and friends, and she’s a cheerleader. She’s also clearly hopelessly jealous and more than a little spiteful. There were definitely a few Susans in the Fear Street series, and when they appeared, they were likely to be the stalker/killers.
The Gorgeous But Possibly Dangerous Love Interest
Tad is the cheerleader-chasing rich boy who takes an unexpected interest in Kelly. He’s also the top of his class and a sports stars of the school, driven to succeed and exceptionally pressured by his father.
Tads are exceedingly common in Fear Street, especially as love interests. The town of Shadyside can be assumed to be brimming with rich guys dating poor girls, driven male valedictorians, and mash-ups of the two.
Lucky for Tad, however, he escaped the fate of many of them: being an abusive bastard and/or raving lunatic.
This character is quite often the stalker/killer, especially if the protagonist doesn’t suspect him. (If she does, it’s probably the rival love interest.)
The Loyal But Increasingly Suspicious Friend
Every Everygirl starts out with a best friend. An Everyfriend, if you will. (Or, if you’re of the more obnoxious sort, an Everybestie.) At the beginning of the story, these two girls will invariably have been friends for years and seem as loyal to one another as can be.
This will almost invariably unravel over the course of the story, causing our Everygirl to suspect, if only vaguely, that the Everyfriend might be the stalker/killer. And if the Everygirl never suspects… well, in that case, the Everyfriend probably did it because UNEXPECTEDPLOTTWISTLIKEWHOA.
Kelly and Talia opt for the “vague suspicion” route.
The Abusive Ex-Boyfriend
This guy. Fuck this guy. This is the ex-boyfriend who threatens, stalks, and abuses the Everygirl until she can’t take it anymore–if she’s lucky.
If she’s not lucky, this guy is ten times worse. He’ll be instead the Abusive Current Boyfriend and will make the protagonist’s life a living hell, all while she explains to the reader how his jealous and threats of violence make her feel special.
This is the character that makes me hate R.L. Stine books.
Danny is Final Exam‘s incarnation of this character, and thankfully he turns out better than most.
The Other Guy
Insert who or whatever you need here. No personality needed! Have a vacant boyfriend spot? Need an “outsider” friend? Slip him (and it’s always a him) right in here, and he’ll fit perfectly. He only needs to show up for a few lines, and he can even be the surprise killer if you want–as long as you mention him in the beginning!
Final Exam‘s Other Guy is Jeffrey, Talia the Everyfriend’s boyfriend. He shows up for a chapter or two towards the end.
And that’s just the characters. The plots are also exceptionally formulaic. The books open with teenagers doing normal teenage things; stressing about school, friends, and romance as they struggle with jobs, parents, and sometimes even the law.
And then shit starts to get real.
Well, sort of. There’s nothing particularly “real”–that is, true to life–about the way the characters react most of the time. Villains lose their minds at the drop of a dime, teens stumble into (and back out of–alive!) multiple attempts on their lives, and no one–not the teens, the parents, or the teachers–bothers to call the police.
There’s a distinct disconnect between these books and reality; the teens here are living in a silly, overly-dramatized version of the ’80s and early ’90s that lets them live ridiculously dangerous and exciting lives while facing none of the consequences. Grades don’t suffer from the mental stress. Attacks and threats aren’t reported. Parents, teachers, and police don’t notice exceptionally obvious problems. Mental illness is an explanation for villainy and is rarely treated. Multiple life-threatening events never impact the victim’s psyche. Animals exist only so they can die in grotesque threats (and dead animals shoved into school lockers are never noticed by staff). The list goes on and on.
And yet I can’t pretend it doesn’t work. These over-dramatic elements serve their purpose; they hold the attention of young teens, and they make for a fast-paced and easy read. There’s a reason that so many of these were churned out by Stine, Cooney, Pike, and others–they sold. In spite of the formulaic plots, the cliche characters, and every other flaw inherent to the genre, even I have to admit… Final Exam and its brethren are more than a little addicting.