Oh boy, oh boy, what do we have here? "The Final Terror" is a film that eluded me for years. After nearly a decade, I've finally gotten around to seeing it, and it blew my expectations out of the water. The plot is routine on the surface: A (rather large) group of campers go on an excursion into the woods of Northern California. When one of them goes missing after a prank, they split up to search for their lost compatriot, only to lose two more. The excursion slowly becomes a survivalist expedition as the remaining campers scramble to get out of the woods alive with a mysterious killer on their tails.
For all the criticism that "The Final Terror" gets, it also gets a lot of deserved love from genre fans; it's an unusual movie. Part slasher flick, for sure, but not entirely— it's equal parts thriller and equal parts survivalist adventure film. Directed by Andrew Davis, who later went on to become a major Hollywood director, the film is exceptionally photographed, accentuating the natural settings and capturing the thick blackness of a night in the wilderness. In that sense, it's reminiscent of 1981's "Just Before Dawn", though "The Final Terror" was actually filmed around the same time (both in 1980— "The Final Terror" had some release issues before finally hitting screens in '83).
As a slasher film, it curiously takes its time to really get going, and also curiouser is the unusually small body count it tallies up; in fact, only one member of the camping group actually falls prey to the killer; two other unnamed characters in the beginning are killed for the sake of establishment, and the two other deaths that come at the end are very anti-slasher (I won't discuss them so as not to spoil the ending). When you take this into consideration, along with the film's "Deliverance"-style tone and the guerrilla warfare camaraderie that evolves among the campers, it really put the film more in the vein of a backwoods thriller or adventure flick than it does a slasher.
The cast is made up of a surprisingly large number of budding Hollywood stars, namely Adrian Zmed, Rachel Ward, Joe Pantoliano, and Daryl Hannah (yes, that's right— Daryl Hannah). The talent of the actors involved her really shines through and bolsters the effectiveness of the proceedings, as the performances are far above the standard for '80s slasher films. The characters are incredibly believable, which I think is also helped by the straight-shooting script. There is an unusual sense of authenticity about the film in that the campers seem like real campers, and their reactions to the events they find themselves a part of seem real. They also don't make stupid decisions; there is no "final girl", and there aren't characters foolishly wandering off by themselves to be killed. The characters in the film are savvy and strategic, sticking together as a unit, even when they're being chased through the woods in the middle of the night by an apparently blade-wielding monster. These unusually bright decisions are perhaps the reason why most of them survive.
Overall, "The Final Terror" is one of the '80s horror oddballs that is even weirder than most because it's not the backwoods body count film you'd expect it to be— in fact, it's not a body count film at all. At times it does work with the elements of slasher pictures, but moreover, it's a wilderness survival thriller with a killer thrown in the mix. Classy photography, a talented cast, and surprisingly intelligent writing really put this film head-and-shoulders above many of its peers. It's thrilling, engaging, and above everything else, it's smart, which is one of the last adjectives I'd expect to use when describing an '80s "slasher" film. Highlights: the nighttime group chase scene through the woods, the guerrilla warfare ending, and, of course, a young Daryl Hannah. 9/10.