The most effective teen horror films, like HALLOWEEN and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, know that closed-down gold mines or prom trains or the moon or other weird settings don't scare us as much as something coming for us in the place we're from--suburbia. The FINAL DESTINATION series gets this right. With flash-cut minutiae of hazardous modern life, a dozen nurse's office wall's worth of queasy safety warning poster moments, it goes where no other horror franchise treads, right over extension cord patches. It takes a sensitive, true paranoiac to even notice these little things--a spray paint can too close to a candle, soda cup condensation too near a tanning bed outlet, a small crack in the window--and James (X-Files) Wong and Glen Morgen are true paranoiacs.
The stories all start the same: a group of teens or young adults or 'adults' are at an event or about to embark. A grisly premonition is played out as if real but then we zoom out of the dreamer's eyeball, back to the start of the event. He or she starts freaking out, and saving his or her immediate cronies, plus some random others, pissing off death and creating the need for little Rube Golderg-style mouse traps to come. Showing flair both as a Young Person's Guide to Home Safety manual come to life, and witty horror, the series prefers its blood to be a dark shiny CGI red; there's no sick-in-the-gut feeling over the gore, just what Pauline Kael would call a 'dirty kick' --a remembrance of being a very young child and alert to all the tiny things that might add up to kill you.
I guess it takes growing up alienated to relate. I would love to see a sequel where some super shy kid has one of the premonitions and is afraid to look uncool by freaking out and quietly sits there, shaky but stoic, as everything he saw comes to pass...and so he dies anyway. That would have been me, during the early 80's slasher boom, too cool to pretend I wasn't terrified of my own shadow, frozen with a sunglassed smirk, hoping the killer would be quick about it. After all, I had places to be.
I've lectured to enough stone-quiet college kids nowadays to know my brand of morose teenagerdom is both better and worse than ever, with a chemical buffer SSRI balm to their pain that stops them from being too sad, maybe, but also stops them rising up and declaring their right-to-be-weird, and that's just one reason why the Final Destination series wouldn't work as well if set outside the USA, where we're still embarrassed about dying, like it's dandruff or an STD. And if it's inevitable, then we still have to fight it, like it was genuinely evil instead of just impartial and passive.
This is, of course, just old-fashioned Puritan dread, the kind that demands after every ascension into Jessica Lange's arms there shalt also be a zipped-up body bag and Ethel Merman. This is what Wong and Morgen understand, which is why the 'precog' is treated like a monster by at least a few of the saved kids and their parents. These resentful survivors are the 'normal,' Christian, white, hetero, NRA types, the ones who are afraid of--and embarrassed by--death, yet also obsessed by its potential as a legitimate alternative to the sins of the flesh. Therefore, death is dirty, and obscene, like sex--the Puritan ethic again--but then of course the undercurrent always springs up. The politician who hates gays so much he just has to cruise the bus stops and pick up male escorts, etc. The puritan American heads are buried Ostrich deep in an assortment of desert dirt dogmas and so these weird inconsistencies seem perfectly natural to them, such as hating and fearing the person who saves your life, or voting for more war but rejecting health-care for disabled veterans and first-responders. They want to be the ones responding, and they're mad no terrorist ever breaks into their house, giving them chance to actually use one of their machine guns. Therefore they hate the people who do get a chance to fight, even as they sulk indoors and grip their arm chair in Fox News-fueled anger.
Another unwritten American fear underwriting the Final Destination Nation is the 'burnt melting-pot' syndrome. We pay good money to be able to avoid our neighbors; in the darkened rows of theater seats and tract homes we want our bubble, and now that our lives are saved, the lights are on and these gays and minorities want us to talk to them; coming up to us, uninvited, warning us some other thing is out to kill us means we're now somehow in their debt, which is most irksome. Anyway, these 'touched by premonition' survivors indirectly cause most of the killings they're trying to avert, barging in at odd hours and overreacting to every little thing. They ask only that instead of being afraid of a monster we embrace all living things as part of our collective experience... what a drag. Instead of dying safe within our constrictive view of what it means to be Americans, we're forced to live on, continental and existential.
But what makes these films 'fun' is that preconception and paranoia go hand in hand, and that's what makes us a nation of psychics. We've seen so many horror movies we're always know when something's about to happen. A perfect meta-textual William Castle gimmick, Death in these films can almost hear us shouting at the idiots onscreen and it's tickled to death to be a part of the action. It loves to fake us out and surprise us. And best of all, it doesn't traumatize or implicate us in its devious design. No single figure of malice presents itself; there is no bogeyman who can be barricaded out, no icky sexually assaultive aspects. Instead there's just a lovable, twisted, silent, invisible Rube Goldberg coincidence time-space serpent, occupying the same 'no space' omnipresence of ourselves as viewers.
Here they are in order:.
FINAL DESTINATION (2000) - **1/2
The plane crash opener is solid, but this film falls off from there. Devon Sawa is too solemn and sweaty and it makes no sense why he would still go out of his way to save the life of the main dick who torments him or why the dopey fed who suspects him of foul play doesn't bother to research past premonition cases. And Sawa does himself no favors, racing into the houses of those he reckons are about to die, indirectly causing their deaths, getting their blood all over his clothes. I've known dumb kids like this in real life, and one of the reasons I've never been arrested is because I always just walk away when they start acting like this, so why should I stick around now?
The love interest, a girl with the great character name of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), exudes fresh odd final girl Wednesday Adams-style resilience which makes up for Sawa's glum posturing. A highlight is their visit to a mysterious undertaker (Tony "Candyman" Todd) who dispenses cryptic advice and a great middle section with Devon alone in a cabin, 'death-proofing' every last corner and jagged edge.
Overall this gets by more on chutzpah than ingenuity. The series got a lot better once it limited death's palette to the freaky but possible, requiring much more Rube Goldbergian ingenuity on behalf of the writers, and scaling back the unlikely associations of total douche bags with the heroes and heroines.
FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003) - ***1/2
A big step up, with a great catastrophic highway accident opener. One of the best. This time the teen gifted with grisly premonitions is female (A.J. Cook), and the return of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) adds extra final girl glory (the scenes in her padded cell are hilarious) means two final girls! And there's far less teenagers involved and more a random assembly of highway drivers, including an obnoxious cokehead biker and a douchey tool who just won the lottery. Your money's no good here, douche! Death works pro bono.
I like when they all decide they have to move in together and start death-proofing a studio loft, as if preparing for an MTV Reality show season where death acts like a Rube Goldbergian host of hosts.
FINAL DESTINATION 3 - (2006) ****
The Citizen Kane of FD movies, this is the one that got me into the series because it's always on IFC. Mumblecore goddess Mary Elizabeth Winstead is ideal as the survivor-psychic; when she freaks out at the roller coaster we realize we've never seen her so undone, even in the sequel/remake of THE THING! She has a hot younger sister, a decently repentant boyfriend of her dead friend, and an unusually witty group of cliché stock teen peers. Deaths are foretold in photos she took while waiting in line for the coaster, which is guarded at the front by a giant red demon statue (Tony Todd supplied the mechanical voice). It all adds up to a particularly wry entry, with tons of loving horror fan in-jokes (characters have last names like Romero, Freund, Dreyer, Ulmer, Wise, Halperin). The deaths are, as always, spectacular, leading up to a clumsy but amusing fairground fireworks finale with a runaway white horse, and an second climax at the hippest of all locales, la NYC subway.
THE FINAL DESTINATION (4) - 2009 -**
I have no idea why the powers that be decided to call this 'The Final Destination' -- is four a bad luck number in junk sequels? It would be forgivable if it didn't use 3-D as a crutch. And the climax, set in a 3-D theater showing a movie with a big explosion that will happen literally at the same time unless the hero stops it blah blah, isn't nearly as meta if you're seeing it at home in 2-D. Nice idea though. And there's a great but under-explored side bit with a security guard in AA who tries to use being marked for death as an excuse to relapse-- which every good AA-er always harbors secret fantasies of (see my review of 2012 - Day of a Million Relapses!) - it would have been great if he did relapse, instead of just forgetting all about his poured measure of brandy. Yo, finish your drink! Instead, this installment is a little too heavy on the X-ray bone breaking animation (and unrealistic CGI blood) which only recalls that cable TV show 1000 WAYS TO DIE. rather than the hipster glory of its last two predecessors.
FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011) - ***1/2
This go-round kicks off on a suspension bridge with a busload of employees bound for a corporate retreat. The craziness that ensues looks good even in 2-D; the nasty stressing of gore over fun in the previous installment is gone and, while less casual than the third, it's still got a nice hint of indie hipness about it, like a big budget Roger Corman production directed by Joe Dante or Lewis Teague.
This time it's discerned that if you kill someone while on your borrowed time they can take your place, so the ubiquitous distraught douchebag buddy decides it's only fair he kills the hero's girlfriend, etc. since his died on the bridge. The ending brings us all the way back around to the first film in a nice surprise loop-de-loop, showing death's wicked sense of humor and whole raison d'etre for starting this whole catch-and-release mess to begin with.
Special mention to the hottest girl in maybe the whole series, Olivia (Jaqueline MacInnes Wood) who is killed while strapped into a Lasik eye surgery machine. I predict big things for this tall, lanky, at-ease-in-her-own-skin Elizabeth Hurley-Megan Fox-Sophie Marceau-ish beauty. I hear from Wikipedia she's already a 'fan favorite.' Count me in, except I once dated a girl who looked like her, but she wanted a whole me, not just a half. And she wore no glasses, and is now old and looks like Anna Magnani.
for just a second,
those precious minutes of Woods' radiance
like grains of sand
I hold in the waves...
how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream? (- Poe)