Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dream within a Dream: The FINAL DESTINATION Nation

The most effective teen horror films know closed-down gold mines or prom trains or the moon or other weird settings don't scare us half as much as our own neighborhood as far as something coming for us, that won't die and can't be stopped. With flash-cut minutiae of hazardous modern life--a dozen nurse's office wall's worth of queasy safety warning poster moments--The FINAL DESTINATION gets this. It wryly goes where no other horror franchise treads --straight home to your house. It takes a sensitive, true paranoiac to even notice the thousand little things that can kill us every day: a spray paint can too close to a candle, extension cord patches melting by a hot stove, soda cup condensation too near a tanning bed outlet, a small crack in the window... and James (X-Files) Wong and Glen Morgen make sure no single broken pilot light goes close-upped. This is what it sounds like / when you're briefly aware of all the sharp surfaces you open yourself up to day-by-day.

The stories all start the same: a group of teens or young adults or plain 'adults' are at an event or about to embark on one. A grisly event is played out as if real but then we zoom out of the dreamer's eyeball, back to right before it starts; the dreamer starts freaking out, saving his or her immediate cronies, plus some random cross-section, pissing off the unseen specter of Death and creating the need for its 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 as an unpretentious, witty horror film, 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 us at any moment.

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.e. in my room, on my beanbag chair, reading DC war comic The Unknown Soldier... Dig, it's about a soldier with a bandaged face who can assume all sorts of disguises behind enemy lines, but who is he? Can he ever fall in love... with a face presumably so hideous? I had every issue, a full run. I was so proud, but who was impressed?

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, the nothing left to lose moments of truth, and that's just one reason why the Final Destination series wouldn't work as well if set outside the USA, where they're less embarrassed about dying. We think of death like it's dandruff or an STD. We treat life like a banquet but we get indignant with the arrival of the check. Was sex without condoms really worth it?

Yeah it was, bitch! But either way, don't blame the girl who gave it to you. This one's all you.

Our blame and fear 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 'pre-cog' hero of each film 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 American 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 counter-current always springs up: the politician who hates gays so much he just has to cruise the bus stops and sleep with male escorts, etc. American heads are buried so ostrich deep in an assortment of desert dirt dogmas these weird inconsistencies seem perfectly natural to them, such as hating and fearing the person who saves their lives, or voting for more war while rejecting health-care for wounded veterans. They're mad no terrorist comes to their neighborhood to provide a target for their home arsenal. Like dogs brave on the leash 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 and imagine the towel-head body count they themselves would leave behind. I get that --my buddy Alan went that route in the 80s and I very nearly COULD have, if not for pot. Weed makes you immune to rage.... temporarily. It's why the older generation's so scared of it! Read my pamphlet, man... hey where you goin'?

Another unwritten American fear underwriting the Final Destination Nation is the 'burnt melting-pot' syndrome. We pay good money to be able to avoid the bane of 'different' neighbors; in the darkened rows of theater seats and tract homes we still want our safety bubble, but when the house lights are on and these gays and minorities head off to their cars same as you, they make us go visiting, and want us to talk to them; coming up to our door, uninvited, warning us some other thing is out to kill us, we're not grateful, but resentful to be in their debt.

'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 even risk their own lives trying to protect the ones who treat them like a combination Snowden/alarm clock. 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 into a state of cosmopolitan ennui, like a goddamned European existentialist. Thanks, "Omabo!"

But what makes these films 'fun' is that preconception and paranoia go hand in hand, and that's what makes us a nation of horror movie-quoting psychics. We've seen so many horror movies that we 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 to concretize our fear. There is no bogeyman who can be barricaded out, no icky sexually assaultive aspects. Instead Death's just a lovable, twisted, silent, invisible Rube Goldberg coincidence time-space serpent, occupying the same 'no space' omnipresence of we viewers. It's us, in fact, the way that buddy I told you about and I would--in 6th grade--draw elaborate mazes of spikes and traps in order to rip stick figures to shreds along a twisting maze every day after school. His idea, your honor. And today, almost four decades later, he's not on Facebook, so I don't even know where he is. Maybe he's in the ether, seeing his evil traps spring to light through our collective eyeballs.

Here they are in order:.

(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 I always just walk away when they start acting like this. Why should I stick around now?

On the plus side: 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 there's a great middle section with Devon alone in a cabin, 'death-proofing' every last corner and jagged edge of his one room fort.

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.

(2003) - ***

A 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). There's far fewer teenagers involved and more a random assembly of highway drivers, including an obnoxious cokehead biker and a douche who just won the lottery. Your money's no good here, douche! Death works pro bono. But tip the water guide, and heed the useless sage-isms from Tony "Candyman" Todd, and wonder why there's no black Bela Lugosi or black Boris Karloff or black Rondo Hatton and if maybe he's all three, if we'd let him into our hearts with his gentle embalming catheter.

I like when they all decide they have to move in together and start death-proofing a studio loft, as if preparing for a Big Brother-style MTV Reality show season where death acts like a Rube Goldbergian host, voting contestants off with a vengeance. The hostility of bikers trying to live with hipsters and greedy yuppies gets on the nerves though.

(2006) ***1/2

The Citizen Kane of FD movies, this is the one that got me into the series because it's always on IFC. Usually chill indie hipster Mary Elizabeth Winstead is ideal as the survivor-psychic. We can relate as "usually chill" people who so hate to be suddenly compelled to convince those around us not to do something. 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 (Alexz Johnson), a decently repentant non-curly-haired boyfriend, 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 "Black Rondo Lugosi" 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). Like a friend riding shotgun, Death even scans for relevant songs on the car radio and the calamities are particularly spectacular, the roller coaster disaster vividly hitting every bump, and everything leading up to a clumsy but amusing fairground fireworks finale with a runaway white horse, and a second climax in the NYC subway.

(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 'the Tingler is in the theater!' 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, drink your damn 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.

(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 X-ray bone-grind 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 back in the 70s.

This time it's discerned that if you kill someone while on your borrowed time they can take your place, so the ubiquitous distraught douche bag 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 the series for 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-Tanya Roberts-Sophie Marceau-ish beauty. I hear from Wikipedia she's already a 'fan favorite.' Count me one, except I once dated a hot girl who looked like her, back when I was a decadent rock star (like the guy who drops her off in the start), which was decades ago and now she's old and looks like Anna Magnani.

What, is that off-topic? WRONG! Only true, jaw-dropping, youthful beauty--the kind its possessor can radiate casually and without the poison of disdain--can allay the terror of mortality. We cling to such loveliness like we might hold onto a slowly deflating helium balloon over a shark-infested sea. Soon age, and show biz, and unworthy Svengalis will siphon the air out of Woods' loveliness and in a mere half-century or less, she'll be just a deflated bag floating on the surface of the ocean. Death, the ultimate of pimp fisherman, catches all these youthful flowers eventually, rowing back from the depths with his endless haul. Oh, Paula! Oh, Olivia! Oh Jacqueline! Lenore! Oh, Annabel Lee! Oh, To stop time 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?"

NO, Poe!

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