The Final Destination franchise is one of the most successful horror franchises of all time. It’s made it to five films so far, and with combined takings approaching two thirds of a billion dollars there’s every likelihood that Warner Brothers will continue to pump out new additions to the franchise, probably well beyond the point that there’s anything worthwhile to do with the source material. It was ever thus in horror. The continued success of the Final Destination movies is somewhat surprising on the face of it. The Saw franchise is built around plot twists, suspense and ever more elaborate traps and although the franchise has been pushed well beyond breaking point the potential for sequels and pushing the story in new directions was always there. The Final Destination movies by contrast are all, to a less or greater extent, the same film. It’s hard to see what allowed Final Destination to rake in money time and time again while other similarly repetitive slasher franchises (Friday the 13th, Halloween) were consigned to increasingly threadbare straight-to-video releases as their central gimmick faded like a Liberal Democrat’s ability to feel hope.
Perhaps the secret is simply this: the central gimmick of Final Destination, that of a group of people being pursued by death itself, is just sufficiently good that it can stand being rehashed. As a genuinely original idea, it’s always been able to grab the interest of its core teen demographic, each movie being effectively a remake for a new a generation of younger viewers. Unlike sad middle-aged horror movie obsessives (i.e. me) these younger viewers haven’t seen the earlier films and they don’t particularly care about seeing things in order. However that’s not going to stop horror nerds watching all five films and ranking them in order of quality – as demonstrated by the fact that I’ve done exactly that over an extremely repetitive and drunken weekend.
Final Destination was memorably summed up by its writer as a slasher film without a slasher. On the face of it that sounds like an insane idea, but in practice it led to a timeless villain who will never get fossilised in a particular epoch because it remains elusive and faceless. The first film sets the template that will be followed more or less slavishly for the next four films. A teenage boy has a vision of disaster just before getting onto a plane to go to Paris with his school. In graphic, horrifying detail he sees the plane explode in mid-air killing everyone on board in an extended and gut wrenching disaster sequence. Armed with this foreknowledge of the future he and a few others escape their fate. This angers Death which then attempts to put the world back into order by killing off everyone who escaped the disaster in a sequence of increasingly contrived accidents. As the body count rises the remaining teens desperately try and work out who will be next and find a way to escape their supernatural stalker.
The genius of Final Destination is that it is able to have its cake and eat it by showing us what should have happened, with all the associated gore and screaming, before then performing the bait and switch to show its cast escaping. It starts with a bang, a massive special effects sequence that owes more to the disaster movie genre than horror. It manages to adhere to the structure of a classic slasher horror without the cheesy guy in a rubber mask making it look ridiculous. It also has a genuine sense of peril, unlike other slasher villains it really isn’t clear how you go about fighting Death itself. Last, but by no means least there’s a kind of vicious slapstick to the deaths themselves, a cartoon quality as you mentally try and guess how the combination of items introduced to the frame will combine in a Wile E Coyote fashion to lead to the convoluted, yet apparently accidental, death of the character currently on view. This, like bullying asthmatic ginger kids*, never manages to get old. It also helps that the special effects are good enough to make the big sequences impressively visceral.
It’s not a perfect movie. The kids are as bland as a Blue Peter presenter and never manage to evoke any real sympathy but at least they don’t evoke any actual hatred either. The acting varies from mediocre to wooden and the final act suffers from the screenwriters not having any more idea of how to go about beating an all powerful spirit of Death than the audience. Death also gets bored of staging elaborately fatal practical jokes and starts levitating electrical cables and the cleverness falls by the wayside a little bit. Flaws aside Final Destination is a pretty decent and imaginative horror movie that is well worth viewing.
*I speak from bitter personal experience.
Final Destination 2
Second verse same as the first. The exploding plane opening is replaced by a multiple car pile up and the cast of forgettable teens is broadened significantly to include a range of equally forgettable. Sure enough this group of strangers are saved from their brutal fates by the vision of a young college student. When the survivors begin dying one by one in freak accidents it becomes apparent they can save themselves from Death by ensuring that one of their number, a pregnant woman, gives birth before they are all killed off. It seems a new life will magically get them off Death’s hit list. Ironic really, since in reality having a child will rule out any chance of having a life for the next 20 years or so.
Final Destination 2 does attempt to take the franchise in a different direction. Slightly. The survivors all being strangers means that there’s more tension in the second act as they try and work out what is going on. There’s a more tongue in cheek vibe creeping in. The film embraces the silliness of the premise whilst still keeping the tension ramped up. There’s also a clearer way for the survivors to escape their fate which gives the final act more drive, although the writers are still forced to throw in some very silly plot twists to keep the energy levels topped up. The characterisation and acting are still quite dodgy but they’re still probably an improvement on the first film.
The key elements are all present and correct though and the opening motorway pile up sequence is probably more impressive than the plane destruction in the first film. It’s an astonishing sequence. The accidents are more convoluted and as a result even more hilarious than last time – they’re quite rightly played much for laughs as horror. The whole film is generally quite good fun. It doesn’t have the freshness of the original and it doesn’t have some of the clever design tricks that helped the original feel constantly off balance but its actually probably a better film all things considered. If you took the best elements of Final Destination and Final Destination 2 you’d have a damn fine horror film.
Final Destination 3
If you took the worst elements of Final Destination and Final Destination 2 you’d have Final Destination 3. It relocates the disaster to a theme park and a badly-maintained roller coaster. This is not as exciting as a plane crash or a massive motorway pile up. It gets worse because the characterisation established for the collection of teenagers makes the revelation that they’ve survived something of a disappointment. They are a collection of grotesque teenage stereotypes who swap the blandness of the early franchise for a newfound aura of supernatural obnoxiousness. Most people will be rooting for Death within minutes of the film starting.
Final Destination 3 feels like a much more subdued effort than either of the films that preceded it. It borrows a plot device from The Omen by having the cast’s deaths hinted at in a sequence of photographs taken by the lead character. The problem is that the deaths are so much more run-of-the-mill that reducing the surprise still further by foreshadowing serves only to rob them of impact. Compared to the intricately set up coincidences that characterised the first two films, these feel more like actual accidents. There’s just nothing new in this entry. The main disaster sequence and many of the death sequences feel underwhelming and there really isn’t anything to hold the attention other than wondering how fucking dreadful the script writer’s friends must be if this cast constitutes their idea of people that the audience will be able to connect with.
Final Destination 4 (The Final Destination)
In an industry noted for having absolutely no artistic scruples whatsoever, Final Destination 4 stands out as being unusually morally bankrupt. It was hastily re-written and re-shot to take advantage of the growing popularity of 3D. It has actual sequences in which the characters talk excitedly about going to see 3D movies. The climax that takes place in a cinema complex in which hundreds of people are seen watching a 3D movie and gasping in amazement like they’ve been transported to a fantastic world that shits magic and goddamn wonder. To make it even worse whatever pretend film these pretend simpletons are pretending to watch is clearly about a thousand times better than Final Destination 4.
The opening sequence involves a disaster at a race track. The heavily CGI gore is even less convincing than the last time and somehow, presumably in order to win a bet, the characterisation is even worse than before. One survivor only speaks in order to cast racial slurs. That’s his characterisation, he’s a massive racist. He says a bunch of racist things then he dies. He is even credited as “Racist” in the script. This film is insulting to the intelligence of people in persistent vegetative states. It makes Michael Bay look like a genius.
The plot is the same as the first three only even more lazy and depressing and by the end the greatest tragedy seems to be that Death has spared the writers and director. They might not be on Death’s list but they sure as hell are on mine. It’s a 3D film that mostly exists to shill other 3D films to idiots in a kind of ghastly circle jerk of life that Elton John is never going to write a critically-acclaimed song about. The worst thing? Final Destination 4 is the most commercially successful entry in the franchise so far.
Final Destination 5
Although its hard to actually describe the fifth Final Destination film as a return to form its certainly true to say that its much better than either 3 or 4. Obviously the plot hasn’t changed much. This time it’s a disaster on a bridge and its definitely the most exciting and visceral opening sequence since the second film. While the 3D influence is obvious, they manage to find a few new things to do with the technology other than throwing things at the screen so it manages not to be too obnoxious. The cast of characters have stopped being hateful, hateful fuckers and returned to the oddly muted nobodies of the early films which is definitely an improvement. The deaths are better shot and more imaginative. A hugely inventive sequence with a young gymnast performing on a beam is about the best horrible in the entire franchise.
The structure of the film is rather more engaging than we’ve seen for some time. The third act benefits hugely from moving in a thriller direction as the characters begin to come apart under the stress of being pursued by Death and turn on each other. They’ve done this before but this is the first time it feels like the sort of reaction actual humans might have. There’s even a few surprises in the plot here and there. They’re very little surprises but it still feels like the writers were making some kind of effort.
By some metrics this is probably the best of the Final Destination movies, building on the strengths of the first and second film and fixing their weaknesses. The problem is that for all its slickness and moments of cleverness this is still the same basic plot as the four films that preceded it. I can’t help but feel that my enjoyment of the film may have derived as much from the sublime feeling of not watching Final Destination 4 as from the actual quality of this installment.
Final Destination is little more than a sequence of increasingly gaudy remakes of the original film but it’s hardly alone in that. I reckon I’ve seen around five remakes of Yojimbo and they all more or less worked (with the noted exception of utterly ghastly The Warrior and the Sorceress). Disasters are always good cinema and watching people die in incredibly implausible accidents is surprisingly robust entertainment. Whilst its hard to argue that any Final Destination film after the first is essential viewing I know I’ll still wind up watching the next inevitable sequel. I might even enjoy it. I’m not sure I feel particularly good about that.