Death Defying: The Enduring Appeal of Final Destination
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
Will they ever reach their Final Destination? Why do we keep coming back for more?
We've learned a great deal from horror movies over the years. Important things like not holidaying at remote woodland holiday camps, not fiddling with elaborate puzzle boxes, and especially not assuming that the maniac in the Shatner mask who just fell backwards off that first floor balcony after you shot him half a dozen times is dead (don't bother checking, he's already gone). We've also learned that any film with the word 'final' in the title rarely is.
The fourth Friday the 13th offering was subtitled The Final Chapter (1984), but not even death could stop Jason Vorhees from slashing his way through another six sequels and a showdown with Springfield's least favorite son before the inevitable, and inevitably disappointing, reboot. Similarly, Mr Krueger's sixth outing, Freddy's Dead (1991), wasn't quite The Final Nightmare promised by the title, though Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994) did at least have the good grace to offer a different perspective on the Elm Street mythology.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Final Destination series has just unleashed its fifth installment, despite the last movie having apparently signaled the end of the franchise by dropping the numeric and prefixing the title with a somewhat definitive 'The', suggesting that it had, indeed, reached its final destination, in 3D no less.
Personally, I'm over the moon that Death is back to hunt down another set of pretty young things who have once again cheated him out of collecting their souls, because whatever criticisms may be leveled against the series - usually along the lines of 'but it's just another movie about killing teens' (well, duh!) - there's no denying that they're fun. So much so, in fact, that I can't think of another horror franchise since the Nightmare movies that I've been genuinely excited about seeing at the cinema for five straight films (and even then I was too young to see the first one on the big screen, but I did see all six sequels and Freddy vs. Jason (2003) in theaters.)
So what is it about the Final Destination films that have me clamoring to take another death trip?
One major factor is that the first movie was so damn good. I remember rolling up to the cinema way back in 2000 to see this intriguing new flick from New Line Cinema (itself a good omen, being the house that Freddy had built) and then sitting on the edge of my seat for an hour and a half thanks to the incredible sense of tension that poured off the screen. Though the first film was relatively light on gore, it knew exactly how to apply the thumbscrews of terrible anticipation as we waited for each of Flight 180's death dodgers to be hunted down and despatched in a variety of deliciously devious demises.
It also helped that the premise of the movie – boy has premonition that the aeroplane he and his classmates have just boarded will explode, persuades said classmates to decamp from the doomed aircraft, thus saving their lives, only for a somewhat annoyed Death to show up wanting to reap their souls – felt like it could have been an X-Files episode, my favorite television show at the time, and for good reason.
Writer Jeffrey Reddick had been sufficiently captivated by the real life tragedy of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747-171 that had exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near New York on 17th July 1992 twelve minutes after taking off, that he wrote a script based around the incident and subsequent investigation and submitted it to X-Files creator Chris Carter on spec. Carter passed on it, but Glen Morgan and James Wong, who had written some of the show's best early stories, including Squeeze and Tooms, the first season’s pair of mutant, liver-eating serial killer episodes, and the horrific fourth season inbreeding tale Home, were intrigued by the idea and agreed to develop the movie as a vehicle for Wong's directorial debut.
One of the main things about the script that appealed to Morgan and Wong turned out to be one of the film's major strengths, in that unlike the vast majority of teen slasher movies (which, for all its intelligence, Final Destination effectively was), there was no masked killer to run around waving a variety of sharp implements or power tools, and no physical protagonist to be defeated at the end.
Instead, the villain of the piece was Death itself, a shadowy presence that could lurk anywhere, creeping slowly up on its victims, usually accompanied by a mysterious, often source-less, wind that invariably set off an elaborate chain of events that culminated in the unlucky victim's gruesome death.
It was, and remains, the inventive nature of these deaths that elevate the Final Destination series, as the camera slowly establishes any number of possible causes for the upcoming demise of whichever pretty young thing is next on the Grim Reaper's death list, dialling up the dread factor as we put two and two together and get fear. We're kept off guard, our nerves gently shredded as the movie deliberately plays with our inevitable instinct to second guess what's coming, before sealing the deal, and the victim's fate, with a sudden twist which is occasionally shocking or surprising, but never illogical (the clues are always there).
The offing of Final Destination 2's Evan Lewis (David Paetkau, recently seen in the fifth season of Dexter as the ex-fiancé of Julia Stiles' Lumen Pierce character) is one of the finest examples of this. As his death scene opens he discards an old pan of pasta out of his apartment window then lights the gas stove to reheat some noodles. As the food warms up, he drops his brand new lucky horseshoe ring down the garbage disposal and so, as you do, sticks his hand in it to retrieve the jewellery. Wouldn't you know, his hand gets stuck as the pan bursts into flames, which he tries to put out by whipping it with a wet towel, but succeeds only in setting the rest of his apartment on fire. Luckily, he manages to free his hand and smash the windows that have just mysteriously blown shut, climbing out onto the fire escape just as the apartment explodes.
After slipping while negotiating the final section of fire escape, he ends up flat on his back as the ladder hurtles down towards his face, but miraculously stops a couple of inches short. Relieved, having apparently cheated death one more, he begins to walk away but slips on the pasta, ends up flat on his back once more right in the path of the ladder which this time slams home, right through his eye. Clever stuff, as you can witness below.
Though the deaths are, of course, the selling point of the Final Destination experience, as the series progresses the mythology is becoming more and more rewarding for fans of the franchise. Little, often subtle, references like the recurrence of the number 180 (in honor of the first movie's Flight 180, which was actually the original title but changed by studio execs so as not to be confused with the likes of Con Air (1997)), the referencing of events in previous movies (the characters in FD2 and FD3 look to the events of FD1 in an attempt to understand what is happening to them), the 'ill wind' which telegraphs the arrival of Death on the scene, and the recurrence of genre favourite Tony Todd.
Best known to horror fans as Clive Barker's chilling Candyman (1992), Todd had guest starred in the second season X-Files episode Sleepless before appearing in the first, second and fifth Final Destination movies as mortician William Bludworth, a man who seems to know a little too much about Death's dastardly plans, but who is willing to impart cryptic (but ultimately useless) advice on how to avoid the Grim Reaper's shiny scythe. Fans with a keen ear would also have noticed Todd's uncredited turn as the voice of the Devil's Flight rollercoaster in FD3, mere minutes before the customary carnage that triggers the prerequisite premonitions of the movie's main protagonist.
Returning one last time to the carnage, if we may, the final element of one-upmanship that the Final Destination series has over its bloody bedfellows is that thanks to the psychic visions of the initial slaughter, be it exploding plane, freeway pile-up, rollercoaster crash, speedway smash or bridge collapse, the franchise's unique selling point to us gorehounds is that not only do we get to see each of our doomed leads get mashed, sliced, diced and worse in the film's first act, we then get to see them each taken out a second time in a completely different way. Two for one has never been so appealing!
Tony Todd was recently quoted as saying that if the latest movie does well enough at the box office, and early numbers suggest that this is the case with word of mouth spreading that FD5 is a real return to the form of the first two films after the slightly disappointing third and fourth entries, then plans are already afoot to film not one, but two more sequels back to back, ensuring that fans like myself will be getting our double death fixes for at least another two or three years.
As we learned at the beginning of the article, never bet on a movie with 'final' in the title being the end of the line. Having been thoroughly satisfied by Final Destination 5 (2011), and not only by the story but the 3D as well – not surprising, though, given that director Steven Quale spent several years working with James Cameron while he was pioneering the 3D technology that was eventually used for a little movie called Avatar (2009) – I'm looking forward to at least a few more stops on this ever-evolving journey before we reach the end of the line.
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