Final Destination (2000)
The opening sequence of Final Destination may not have the elaborate effects of the plane crashes that start Alive or Fearless, but does manage to convey every white-knuckle flyer’s vision of the worst aspects of flying. Grimly silent as all his schoolfriends are arguing, flirting or joking, Alex observes a succession of details that serve to convince him that his flight is a death-trap: the gap between boarding tunnel and plane door, a crying baby and a handicapped passenger (Tod comments that God would have to be really cruel to let this plane crash), miserable weather outside, scraped paint and patches of rust on the wings and fuselage, a broken toggle on the seat-back tray, alarmingly casual staff, piped John Denver music (‘didn’t he die in a plane crash?’). There’s a real feeling for the chaos that ensues after Alex’s freak-out, which serves also to deftly introduce all the characters who will (temporarily survive), and the real-life explosion that replicates Alex’s premonition is shatteringly done, as a puff of flame in the distance while Alex and Carter are pulled out of another fight before the blast shatters the terminal windows.
Unfortunately (and ironically for a film so titled), Final Destination has after its set-up literally nowhere to go. It may be that debuting feature director James Wong and his writing partner Glenn Morgan have not been able to unlearn the habits aquired in scripting many episodes of The X Files and Millennium, shows which have continuing mysteries and are thus not obliged to offer closure. It is also likely that the original story by Jeffrey Reddick simply can’t stand up under close examination, with an underlying vision of life and death that shifts from scene to scene and never approaches coherence. Indeed, story problems really set in with absurd sequences of the slightly psychic protagonist laboriously working out who is next in line for an Omen-style freak accident by overlaying the path of the explosion over the seating plan of the doomed flight, and then realising that he has made several mistaken assumptions and that death is working down a differently-ordered list.
Also, as an entry in the current cycle of teenage horror films, this has chosen to tackle its one alotted weighty subject (dying young) with all due reverence: for a change, we see that the sudden deaths of kids affect an entire community as Alex becomes the scapegoat for all manner of ill-feelings simply because he is around and weird enough to be blamed. Therefore, there isn’t the time to grapple with thornier issues like free will and predestination. In his ominious one-scene cameo, Tony Todd (of the Candyman films) spiels about death’s design but is more concerned with providing gruesome laughs by spouting his lines as he calmly embalms the dead Tod, discomforting Alex and Clear but also taking the film well beyond the apparent realism it has hitherto espoused. The ‘money stuff’ of the film is the elaborate accidents, accompanied by such supernatural effects as passing shadows and mysteriously seeping water, with entire rooms full of objects (a leaky toilet, a bathtub washing line, a block of knives, a computer, a cracked vodka mug) conspiring against the unwary, which sets up the neat joke of Alex alone in a cabin putting corks over every protruding nail and taping down anything that might conceivably be a threat. However, the biggest scare in the movie is the one death that comes out of nowhere in the middle of a dialogue sequence, delivering a shock that can’t come from more obviously foreshadowed set-pieces.
Though it has fallen irretrievably to pieces by the time it gets to Paris, the film has quite a lot going for it: the young cast may have the usual teen model looks but play well together, emphasising the uncomfortable aspects of teenage society, and Devon Sawa (also interesting in the more broadly horror-comic Idle Hands) is an acceptable everyman protagonist, never quite becoming a superhero; and, given a story that makes sense, Wong is liable to be a major director — as in his X Files work, he works wonders with unsettlingly inappropriate background music (the John Denver theme runs throughout), stray bits of decor or prop clutter that become ominous and deftly-sketched background characters. It may well, however, be time to retire the habit of naming all the characters after important figures in the history of the horror film — Weine, Shreck, Muranu, George Waggner, Browning, Val Lewton, Hitchcock, Chaney — unless there’s some real thematic reason for it.
[first published in Sight & Sound]
Final Destination 2 (2003)
An ingenious sequel to the popular teen-themed horror movie, this continues the canny use of happenstance and coincidence (ie: sloppy plotting) as a metaphysical and malign force. New heroine Kimberly Corman (A.J. Cook) has a detailed premonition of disaster on the approach road to a highway and holds up a number of travelers who would otherwise die in a complicated, remarkably-staged multi-vehicle pile-up. Recognising that this is a rerun of the situation of the first film, Kim consults the surviving heroine (Ali Larter) as fate begins to pursue a fresh batch of characters. The script extrapolates intriguingly from the original as death, whose spokesman remains a sinister undertaker (Tony Todd), stalks people who are still alive thanks to a ripple effect of the first plot while Kim’s sometimes-misleading visions encourage them to take usually-ineffectual sidesteps. The main business of the film is still the totalling of a succession of characters, and director David R. Ellis (hitherto a stunt specialist) and writers J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress flirt with expectations by setting up outrageous chain reactions of events that seem to threaten gruesome death then throwing in gory punchlines which come from unexpected directions: a lottery winner trapped with his hand down a garbage disposal by his new rolex as a fire breaks out in his rat-trap apartment manages to extricate himself, but is killed because of thrown-away spaghetti and a faulty fire-escape; a kid who nearly chokes on a plastic fish while drugged in a dentists’ chair is flattened by a falling sheet of glass outside the office; and a woman who survives a car crash is killed when a rescuer’s drill triggers an airbag that rams her skull against a jagged spur. Characterisation and performance are just there to prop up the horrors, but some witty moments emerge, like the stoner who accepts his oncoming doom and sadly gives the likely survivor his apartment keys with instructions to throw away ‘my drugs, my paraphenalia, my porno and anything else that would break my mother’s heart’. It is ruthless enough to kill off fifteen-year-old boys, but not a pregnant woman.
Final Destination 3 (2006)
The Final Destination (2009)
Here’s an instance of the-same-again-but-in-3D. The Final Destination series pretty much ran its course in three movies (even if the third had interactive try-to-alter-fate alternate scene trickery on DVD) and would probably have lain fallow for a couple of decades until its number came up on the remake stakes, but new advances in tridvid processes seem tailored to its goofily gruesome premise and so here’s a fourth film – with splatter tossed into the audience, and all manner of sharp objects, flying missiles, flipping cars and explosions lunging straight into the audience’s faces. Seen flat, it’s probably the limpest of the series – it has a low-wattage cast (not even a Tony Todd cameo) and the script just shuffles through the established rules yet again as an excuse for scenes in which everyday circumstances become death traps. A real problem for all the sequels is that Final Destination’s plane crash was conceptually the best set-up for the story, and the more elaborate disasters – here, it’s a pile-up at an unsafe racing track which leads to a collapsing stand – don’t have the simple resonance of the fear-of-flying premise (let’s face it, few have a fear of redneck racecar accidents).
As in every other FD film, the protagonist – here, Nick O’Bannon (Bobby Campo) — has a premonition of disaster (illustrated fully) and makes a fuss which means some folks who were doomed to die walk away from the carnage, only to be struck down by freak accidents in the aftermath, as if the spirit of Wile E. Coyote were charged with the job of collecting lost spirits a la Carnival of Souls or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The victims are either bland or obnoxious and their deaths are staged in splattery black comic fashion, with many a misdirection (that obviously dangerous ceiling fan is less of a threat than the pebble carelessly thrown in the grass) to string out gigglesome, yet undeniably effective set-pieces. David R. Ellis, who handled Final Destination 2 and is back aboard after failing to found a Snakes on a Plane franchise for New Line, judges these scenes well. Though the overfull medicinal bathtub falling through a hospital floor onto a patient below perhaps goes beyond contrivance and the dickhead (Nick Zano) sucked into a plughole in a swimming pool while trying to retrieve his lucky coin similarly takes a lot of killing, there are well-timed sequences involving a car wash, a hairdresser, a botched cross-burning (don’t ask), a chain-link fence and (self-referentially) a 3D movie screening.
The Eric Bress script just goes through the plot again, without even the complications added for earlier sequels which tried to weave an overall story (the connections with earlier FD films are near-subliminal). The lead characters aren’t even as rounded as their predecessors: a reformed alcoholic security guard (Mykelti Williamson) whose suicide attempts are thwarted because it’s not his turn to die (a sub-plot hurried through, which could make a whole film) has the most baggage, but still isn’t very interesting (he gets a ‘déjà vu’ joke which is funny only the second time round, though). Bress even uses shorthand in the character names: the end credits list such doomed types as Racist (Justin Welborn) and MILF (Krista Allen). Campo is a bland lead, and his psychic powers come out of nowhere. Zano enjoys being six varieties of dick, but only so people have someone to argue with (his gratuitous sex scene is a hoot, though). The girls – Shantel VanSanten, Haley Webb – are pretty, but barely register. Some of the background gags (a coffee shop called Death By Caffeine) are funny and there’s a ‘Charlie Says’ educational film vibe to nerve-wracking close-ups of ill-maintained equipment, folks smoking around flammables, carelessly-balanced tins of goo and weakly-moored heavy objects. Combined with the many payoff shots of what exactly all this can do to a fragile human body – a few of the deaths are shown in bone-breaking x-ray imagery – this means you come out of the cinema and look around nervously for the horrible doom awaiting at every turn.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
As I’ve said before, the Final Destination films are like the Road Runner cartoons – the same plot structure every time, and in essencce the same joke told over and over again. Luckily, it’s a good joke. This is the second FD film in 3D, and certainly goes back to the old House of Wax stick-it-in-your face gimmickry – the girl impaled on a yacht’s mast, especially. By now, you know the drill: a spectacular, elaborate, stunt-filled disaster in the opening reel (a suspension bridge collapse, with a lot of collateral damage) which turns out to be a premonition experienced by a protagonist – barely-a-character Sam Lawton (Nicholas D’Agosto), a junior exec in a papermill who would rather be a chef – who then persuades a manageable number of people to get off their doomed bus and escape, whereupon cheated death stages elaborate accidental dooms for the characters.
After five films, I’m still not sure about the spiritual set-up – if death is somehow an active supernatural force, what is the feebler opposing force which gifts the doomed with useless premonitions? – though this does work a newish wrinkle as one of the guys on the list (Tom Cruise-alike Miles Fisher) figures that death can be further cheated by shoving someone else in its path (as happens with a bullying white union organiser who is giving a black junior exec a hard time) and sets out to get the heroine (Emma Bell, from Frozen and The Walking Dead) to take his place. The drawn-out, teasing freak accidents this time come up with newish locales and dangerous occupations (admittedly mostly variants on things we’ve seen before) – a gymnastics session which pays off with the worst landing ever (Ellen Wroe), an acupuncture/massage mishap with a witty punchline involving a Buddha statuette (PJ Byrne), and laser eye surgery gone wrong (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood). There’s also death in a factory and the kitchens of a restaurant, where lots of deadly equipment gets used – there are also red herrings, as deadly-seeming stuff turns out to be harmless. I get the feeling these things start as storyboarded deaths, which are then fit onto a grid and written around – besides Todd, the only player with any character is David Koechner, guest-starring as the manager who insists on the team-building retreat that gets everyone on the doomed bus in the first place.
Spoiler – though nothing in the set-up suggests this is set ten years ago, it turns out to be a prequel and the traditional you-can’t-win climax that renders all the striving of the thin-characters moot and pointless dovetails with the air crash that kicked off the first film. It’s not clever, but it does deliver the goods: in many ways, this is the most consistent of all franchises … though the connective tissue of plot seems weaker with every reuse, and the actors are just pieces to be moved around the Mouse Trap board. Tony Todd’s knowing coroner Mr Bludworth hints at what’s going on, though by now so does everyone in the audience, while Courtney B. Vance is the FBI agent who suspects the hero of involvement. Written by Eric Heisserer, whose credits on the reduxes of Elm Street and The Thing mark him out as the sort of hired hack who gets trusted with not screwing up the property by bringing anything like an original idea to the table; directed by Steven Quale, James Cameron’s co-director on Aliens of the Deep and favoured 2nd unit man on Avatar and Titanic, who is doing the sort of job that signals advancement without ambition.