★1/2 out of ★★★★★
This is what passed for mid-budget horror in 2000. A fine premise is completely undone by cliches and a bevy of poorly rendered characters making terrible decisions.
I was watching HBO this past weekend, and I realized that there was a mini-marathon of Final Destination films that was about to start up. I had some recollections of an enjoyable, if thin, killing-by-the-numbers franchise. After about twenty minutes into the first one, I realized… man they made some shitty franchises back in the early 2000’s. The foundation idea is strong enough: A group of high school kids about to embark on a trip to Paris cheat death by getting kicked off a doomed flight, because of the premonitions of Alex (Devin Sawa), only to have the survivors get tracked down by death because they didn’t earn their reprieve from the grave. This movie was, admittedly, a minor hit, and has since branched out into four sequels all featuring a spectacular disaster, and cheating death by a psychic spoiler alert. Sequel disasters in order: Freeway logging truck accident, roller coaster comes off the tracks, motor speedway explosion, and suspension bridge collapse. All of the disaster sequences are fun to watch. All of the follow-up deaths are equally preposterous and frustrating. Rinse and repeat.
Final Destination came at a time of transition in the horror genre. The era of the groundbreaking micro-budget horror movie had just kicked off with The Blair Witch Project, and there had been some classic thriller/horror big budget films like The Sixth Sense and Se7en, but Hollywood had gotten itself caught in a horror movie trap. Scream (1996) had managed great critical and financial success by creating an extremely self-aware meta post-modern spin on the horror genre. It referenced all the dog-eared horror movie cliches, and embraced all the old tropes of the genre, poking fun at them with a wink, while still utilizing the jump scares and the very cliches it was making fun of. Final Destination has the outward appeal of Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, but took the wrong lessons. They got a bunch of pretty teenagers. Check. And had them stumble into foolishly lethal situations. Check. And understood the folly of their actions through satire and wit… uh… no.
The characters were broad and annoying caricatures. The misunderstood almost-nerdy lead protagonist (Sawa). The rebel girl who, despite being very pretty, is a loner (Ali Larter). The horny best friend (Chad Donnell). The dick-ish rival (Kerr Smith). The rival’s fawning hot girlfriend (Amanda Detmer). And Seann William Scott playing the same obnoxious character he always plays. All of these characters are set up like bowling pins to get knocked out of the movie, one by one. The movie telegraphs the deaths badly, despite trying to pull the false leads. Look! A bunch of knives in the foreground! Hey! An electric radio in the bathroom! Hey! Hey! I was reminded of an image of an old-timey boxer twirling his fist and then punching with his off hand. The distractions were unsubtle and clunky. One thing that kept coming to mind was… why does death want to be so tricky about the way that it takes these victims out? Wouldn’t it be much easier just to come in and give them a heart attack? Certainly, that would be a lot easier than the trickle of water that causes the slip in the bathroom + shower curtain + shampoo slippage = garrote that requires just the right sequence of actions. Or, the broken mug with vodka that will cause a computer fire and send the hapless victim to cut themselves and set herself on fire. The electrical storm that forms up one of the big third act set pieces is handled ludicrously. Seriously, stay inside when live power lines are whipping around. I guess there were a bunch of folks who like the complex Rube Goldberg death traps. It just all feels like the film is trying too hard.
The characters don’t really have any motivations. They don’t have any story arcs. The whole notion of the premonition, which should have been central to the story, is largely overlooked and is never explained. Tony Todd shows up as a prophetic mortician, but is really a bit of forced exposition, and is instantly forgotten after he delivers his prophetic dialogue. (They wasted an opportunity to use the Candyman!) The supporting parents and cops are completely useless. Alex keeps making stupid incriminating decisions, putting himself at the scenes of the crime and suffers no consequences for his errors. The movie fails Eric’s Horror Movie Rule #1: Do I care about the protagonists? No. No, I do not. I don’t care if bad things happen to them, and I fully expect bad things to happen to them, and I believe the film wants me to root for them to die. Cheap exploitation and I ain’t falling for it! This is a gripe that I have with many horror movie franchises, and why I usually loathe for sequels that recycle the same plot points.
AAARRRRGH! This movie should have been better! It’s actually oddly watchable because the production values are fairly high and the premise has promise. The actors were stiff, but weren’t terrible. Had James Wan directed this instead of James Wong, maybe we would have had a good movie. We had the Wong director! (Hee!)
Now, before you accuse me of not liking teen (and I’m lumping in High School and College aged kids here) based mid-budget pop-horror films, let me suggest some other ones for you:
- Black Christmas (1974)
- The Lost Boys (1987)
- Scream (1996)
- Ginger Snaps (2000)
- Jeepers Creepers (2001)
- May (2002)
- Cabin Fever (2002)
- Cabin in the Woods (2012)
- It Follows (2015)
- Don’t Breathe (2016)
- Happy Death Day (2017)
All of those films feature strong characters, fabulous villains, and are plenty entertaining without making you turn your brain off to enjoy them.
Final Destination is Rated R, and is available on HBO right now, and Amazon, Google, Vudu, and YouTube. (If you still wanna watch it after my glowing praise.)