Monday, March 5, 2012

Final Destination Retrospective


Okay, time to talk about one of my greatest guilty pleasures, the Final Destination series. I’m a huge fan of anything even remotely original in the horror genre, and this franchise comes with an innovative concept: its generic hotties are being murdered not by a slasher or monster but by Death Itself, in all its intangible glory. Each film opens with a ghastly disaster that claims many lives -- but a small handful of folks are saved when the protagonist has a sort-of psychic premonition. The survivors then start dying anyway, as Death course-corrects itself using whatever materials are on hand. Honestly, the one thing this series has going for it is its grisly, creative, and unexpected kill scenes; it’s possibly the only ’verse in which a coffee spill, a tube of tanning lotion, or a plastic fish mobile can become an instrument of sudden death. And that’s awesome. So let’s dive right in!

OPENING DISASTER: The midair explosion and crash of an airplane carrying a high school class to Paris.
CAST LINEUP: Nice Guy, Nice Girl, Best Friend, Jock, Bitch, Slacker, MILF
CELEB FACTOR: Main guy Devon Sawa was a minor heartthrob in the ’90s. Main girl Ali Larter graduated to somewhat bigger things, starring in Heroes and the Resident Evil franchise. The annoying Seann William Scott went on to be annoying in many, many, many other films. And horror icon Tony Todd, the Candyman himself, cameoed as a creepy coroner.
GIMMICK: By tracing the path of the electrical failure on the plane, the hero can predict who will die next. Also, if you save yourself or are saved from death, you get bumped to the back of the line and are safe for awhile. The sequels would hammer this rule into the ground.
MEANEST DEATH: The well-meaning best friend narrowly escapes electrocution in his bathroom, only to be slowly garroted by a laundry cord. Surprisingly bloodless (the later films cranked the gore up to maximum), it was still fucking hard to watch and established the suspenseful, bait-and-switch format of the deaths.
MY FAVORITE DEATH: Seeing Seann William Scott get decapitated at uvula level by a flying metal shard. Ahhhhh, bliss. That’s one of those moments you just want to rewind and watch over and over.
CAPSULE REVIEW: As is often the case, the first film in the series is the best and most thoughtful. The deaths are great, but the script actually allows the characters to discuss their situation in depth and philosophize a little on the nature of fate and mortality. Just a little. Unlike future installments, FD1 takes its time, which only ratchets up the suspense. It ain’t perfect -- the creepy coroner is kinda superfluous (in the sequels, too), and there’s a pointless subplot involving a couple of Suspicious Cops who wonder why the hero seems to know when all his friends will die. But it’s still really damn good for a glorified slasher flick, and (at least back then) there was nothing else like it. A

OPENING DISASTER: A violent highway pileup in which giant bouncing logs feature prominently.
CAST LINEUP: Nice Girl, Nice Cop, Paranoid Survivor, Slacker, Bitch, Token Black Guy, MILF, Son of MILF, Douchebag
CELEB FACTOR: Ali Larter’s character, having survived the first film, returns for more. Main girl A.J. Cook is a regular on Criminal Minds. T.C. Carson’s voice should sound awfully familiar if you’ve played the God of War games. Tony Todd reprises his role.
GIMMICK: Now pay attention: all the survivors of the car pileup had previously been saved from death as an indirect result of one of the deaths from the first film. So they were all marked for death before the pileup even happened. No, it doesn’t make any damn sense, and yes, Death is clearly slacking on the job.
MEANEST DEATH: In a scene that would go viral as a .gif, a teenage boy (played by an actual teenage boy for once) is pulverized by a falling sheet of glass while his screaming mother looks on, making him the youngest victim of the series. Edgy (no pun intended).
MY FAVORITE DEATH: Know how they use wires to cut big wheels of cheese? It’s like that, only the wire is actually a flying barbed wire fence and the role of the cheese is played by the lovable slacker. It occurs mere seconds after another death, making it both startling and rather hilarious. A twofer!
CAPSULE REVIEW: Does not live up, sadly. The car pileup is very effective and I like how the characters are strangers who team up early on to try and cheat death. Watching them all play detective with increasing desperation is fun and leads to some good lines. (“Nora! A man with hooks is gonna kill you!”) But the filmmakers felt like they had to ratchet up the gimmickry, so the “rules” behind Death’s design became incredibly murky and convoluted, especially toward the end. Despite a couple awesome deaths and the growing realization that we want to see these people bite it in cool ways, FD2 is kind of a fart in the wind. B-

OPENING DISASTER: A malfunctioning roller coaster flings a bunch of high school seniors to their deaths.
CAST LINEUP: Nice Girl, Nice Guy, Pervert, Jock (doubles as Token Black Guy), He-Goth, She-Goth, Slut #1, Slut #2, Bratty Little Sister, Extremely Token Asian
CELEB FACTOR: Main girl Mary Elizabeth Winstead has built a solid film career, with roles in Grindhouse, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing, and others. Tony Todd’s character is absent, but he provides a recorded voice for the roller coaster.
GIMMICK: The main girl is a yearbook photographer, and the pics she takes prior to the disaster contain clues as to how the survivors will kick the bucket. If only iPads existed back then! Also, the DVD contained a “Choose Their Fate” feature in which viewers could slightly alter events in the movie. There was even an option to save the main characters, in which case the film ended after fifteen minutes. I am not making this up.
MEANEST DEATH: The two slutty Popular Gurlz are trapped in overheated tanning beds and burned to a crisp. And it is fucked up, even by my standards. Many Final Destination deaths are gory but relatively quick and painless; this one lingered on the girls’ pain and anguish, not to mention their naked, barbecued flesh, to an unseemly degree. For once, I didn’t giggle.
MY FAVORITE DEATH: The Goth girl gets several additional piercings through the noggin when she falls on a nail gun. This was one of the series’ best surprise exits, especially since we were led to believe it was her boyfriend who was about to get it. Death is such an asshole.
CAPSULE REVIEW: By this point, everyone knew the death scenes were all that mattered, so the filmmakers had the good idea to make most of the characters into obnoxious little shits. Rooting for the Reaper became the norm, and it didn’t hurt that the kills were inventive, the script threw a couple decent twists our way, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead is as sweet as an apple turnover. On the flip side of the coin, the third installment definitely settled the series onto a permanent set of rails and, for some reason, brought back the Suspicious Cop subplot and then dumped it partway through. So, I’d say...flawed but solid. B+

OPENING DISASTER: A speedway crash that bombards the spectators with flaming car parts.
CAST LINEUP: Nice Guy, Nice Girl, Douchebag, Bitch, Token Black Guy, MILF, Redneck, Some Random Dude, Some Other Random Dude
CELEB FACTOR: Nada, except for poor Mykelti Williamson, whom you may recall as Bubba in Forrest Gump. It’s tough to be a black man in Hollywood. Otherwise, even Tony Todd knew to stay away from this one.
GIMMICK: 3D. Unfortunately.
MEANEST DEATH: The douchebag winds up suctioned to the bottom of a swimming pool by a faulty vent. First we think he’ll drown. Then we think he’ll be electrocuted. Finally, in a possible nod to Chuck Palahniuk, the vent disembowels him through his butthole. Ewwwwwww. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
MY FAVORITE DEATH: The racist redneck decides to burn a cross on the black dude’s front lawn, but his brilliant plan goes amok when he’s dragged behind his own truck, set on fire, and decapitated, all while “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” blares on his radio. As you can see, they’ve dropped all pretense of seriousness.
CAPSULE REVIEW: Ehhhh. This one’s....kinda painful. Their attempt to revamp the series (starting with the utterly retarded title) fell flat, resulting in a rushed and exceptionally formulaic turd. The characters had no dimension, the script was on autopilot, everything ran out of steam toward the end, and the deaths, while still fun and gory, were lessened by a lack of suspense and some truly pathetic CGI. Basically, they bet everything on the allure of 3D, but you can’t build a film out of random objects flying at the audience’s face. Watch this one if you’re truly in love with the series, but don’t expect much. C-

OPENING DISASTER: A suspension bridge collapses in the wind, which would never in a million years happen in this age, but whatever.
CAST LINEUP: Nice Guy, Nice Girl, Best Friend, Another Nice Girl, Pervert, Slut, Asshole Boss, Token Black Guy
CELEB FACTOR: Main dude Nicholas D’Agosto (whom I dislike) was on Heroes and some other stuff; main girl Emma Bell was in the well-received Frozen and the first season of The Walking Dead; supporting dudes David Koechner (as the Asshole Boss) and Courtney B. Vance (as the Suspicious Cop) are hardworking character actors. And Tony Todd’s back!
GIMMICK: Apparently you can save yourself by killing someone else, which adds an element of human evil to the film’s third act. Also, one gimmick is dropped: the hero no longer has premonitions of every individual death. Trust me, it had gotten old.
MEANEST DEATH: Nearsighted folks who aren’t sold on LASIK should probably avoid FD5, which showcases a woman screaming and flailing on an operating table as a malfunctioning laser carves pretty patterns in her eyeball. Just when you think she might escape and merely be blinded and scarred for life, she goes out the tenth-story window and lands on a parked car. I sure do love my nerd glasses.
MY FAVORITE DEATH: Again, I’ll go with the campiest one, in which a sleazy pervert has a less-than relaxing trip to a massage parlor. It’s not the acupuncture needles that get him (though they sure do hurt when he falls upon them), nor the random fire that his own cell phone helps kindle. Nope, it’s the Buddha statue that falls from a shelf and obliterates his cranium. This is way funnier than it sounds; almost poetic. Zen, motherfucker!
CAPSULE REVIEW: This is more like it! To everyone’s surprise, FD5 injected the high-tension giggles back into the franchise, returning to its roots in more ways than one. Making the cast a bunch of dysfunctional coworkers allowed for some snarky office-related humor, the kills were suspenseful, the effects were solid, the 3D was utilized in a less derpy manner, and even the tiresome Suspicious Cop subplot got an injection of class from Courtney B. Vance, who played the role not as a stubborn moron but as a reasonable man who just wants to understand the impossible. There’s also a twist ending that’s as slick as an eel and as juicy as a prime rib. And Nicholas D’Agosto didn’t even annoy me that much! Yeah, the series is still formulaic as ever, but you know? That’s part of why we love it. Bravo. A-

The bottom line is, I have a twisted soft spot for all these films, even when they turn out less than stellar. All I want is some funny/freaky kill scenes and a good dose of camp, and the Final Destination movies always deliver. And who knows? Maybe they’ll start dealing more directly with the Big Questions of why Death works in such strange ways, and why some people apparently get a second chance. Make it all profound and shit, you know? Personally, I’m hoping that a future installment will feature the characters finally confronting Death, who looks like this:

...and she’ll just shrug, pop her bubble gum, and say, “I have a lot of time on my hands, okay?”

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