Horny forest rangers Cerone (Adrian Zmed), Zorich (John Friederich), Hines (Ernest Harden Jr.) and Boone (Lewis Smith) are especially pleased when sexy ladies Margaret (Rachel Ward), Windy (Daryl Hannah) and Vanessa (Akosua Busia) join them for a camping trip in the woods. Their driver, unhinged fellow ranger Eggar (Joe Pantoliano) is less than pleased however, especially when the group venture into an area he insists is off-limits. Sure enough when group leaders Mike (Mark Metcalf) and Melanie (Cindy Harrell) indulge in some skinny-dipping sex they meet a sticky end at the hands of a shaggy, disheveled, knife-wielding killer. Lost and terrified in the woods, the surviving rangers try to escape back to civilization but are hunted by the relentless maniac.
Filmed under two different working titles including Three Blind Mice (which the cast perform in a sing-along on the bus) and The Creeper, The Final Terror eventually made it to theaters and home video under a bewildering array of alternate titles such as Angst, Campsite Massacre and The Forest Primeval. Shot in 1981 but unreleased for two years, it is a rare quality slasher film sadly lost amidst the glut of Friday the 13th clones and sequels spewed out throughout the early Eighties. Even so the film earned a modest cult reputation on the strength of the talent both in front of and behind the camera. By the time it played cinemas ensemble players Rachel Ward and Darryl Hannah were established stars while the likes of T.J. Hooker's Adrian Zmed, Joe Pantoliano, Lewis Smith, The Wanderers' (1979) John Friederich and National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) veteran Mark Metcalf (who went on to play vampire lord 'The Master' on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and co-star with Ward in hit mini-series The Thorn Birds) went on to long careers in film and television.
An undeniable A-list gloss elevates The Final Terror above routine slasher fare. Co-produced by American International Pictures founder Samuel Arkoff and his son-in-law Joe Roth, later a hugely influential producer and occasional director recently behind a slew of major blockbusters at Disney (e.g. Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014)), the film was the sophomore outing for former D.P turned director Andrew Davis who also handled the excellent cinematography. Davis went on to graduate from efficient Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal vehicles to more accomplished action and thriller fare, most notably The Fugitive (1993) although his finest film remains the eccentric Disney comedy Holes (2003). Here he makes unsettling use of the beautiful Redwood forest that is both impressive and oppressive. The opening sequence cleverly contrasts the region's sylvan beauty with bursts of sudden violence as images of cute deer frolicking in the forest prefigure a motorcycle crash after which the rider and his leggy girlfriend meet a nasty fate.
Made with intelligence and skill rather than relying on excessive gore to hold our attention, the film sustains its tense and eerie mood for the most part. Though saddled with the usual stupid false scares, lunkhead pranksters and skinny-dipping, dope-smoking, sexual escapades punished with gruesome deaths one expects from the film deftly sidesteps the misogyny that mar many slashers. In its place there is an underlining twisted semi-homophobic tension centered around the degenerate Eggar who is introduced fondling and threatening the shirtless male rangers in their bunk beds. Too often typecast as an Italian-American mob type, Pantoliano is highly convincing as snarling, repressed sadist Eggar. With the high caliber cast performances and characterization are head and shoulders above other efforts in this genre. Yet the script co-written by Jon George, Neil D. Hicks and Alien (1979) and Total Recall scribe Ronald Shusett proves less thematically nuanced than it initially seems.
Early on, in a nice touch, Boone spins a campfire yarn that turns out to reveal the true origin of the murderer yet the plot does not expand on this in any way. Avoiding such slasher staples as nudity (that sound you hear is all the Darryl Hannah and Rachel Ward fans grumbling) and gratuitous bloodshed (most of the killings occur off-screen) yields something of a mixed blessing. With the exception of the bravura finale the anemic set-pieces prove what an effects maestro like Tom Savini brings to the table. In place of the usual dumb teenagers The Final Terror presents smart, capable twenty-somethings who despite some friction function intelligently as a group, savvy enough to camouflage themselves, improvise weapons and steer a raft down raging river rapids yet still vulnerable enough to be taunted and toyed with by the malicious maniac. While the finale fumbles the Deliverance (1972) style social commentary about savagery lurking inside seemingly civilized folk it is still tense and effective. In many ways The Final Terror's chief virtue is competence rather than originality or innovation which probably says more about the ineptitude of most Eighties slasher films.