Final Destination & The Curious Case of a Horror Film Franchise That Ends With Its Best Film

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The Final Destination films have been described as slasher movies in which we never see the slasher. A group of people are killed one by one, and only the protagonist seems to know what’s happening and how to potentially stop it. Like most slashers, these films end with the inevitably of death whether it be from death’s design or a masked killer once again living to see another day.

These movies are unique from slasher franchises in other ways as well. Three of the five entries feature male protagonists. All the films feature protagonists who inexplicably have a premonition of the disaster to come. (Why do the characters get a premonition if death’s design is truly inescapable? This is not a rhetorical question). They often have varying methods of predicting individual deaths as well, with characters like Wendy using photos from the night of the disaster to decode how people might die and others having visions of deaths to come.

Unlike slasher films which revel in the debauchery of their characters in the face of certain death, Final Destination is cruel to its characters who are often so traumatized by the disaster they survived they are too upset to care about any of the activities which make life worth living. There’s no partying and sex in these films (save for one character who vows to live up his last days on earth). Instead, characters scramble to protect themselves and one another from the ever-present specter of death.

Although they have a formula they follow almost exactly in every film, they are worth a watch for being a “slasher” franchise of sorts situated in the 2000s. Most interestingly, despite this rigid formula, this franchise ends with its best film, and only suffers from one truly terrible entry.

Ranking Worst to Best:

5. The Final Destination (Final Destination 4)

No one will be surprised to see this listed as the worst. Just look at this:

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Most horror film franchises have hits and misses, but The Final Destination is considerably worse than any other film in its franchise. Written by one of the writers of Final Destination 2, this film seems to utterly hate all its characters. They are all one-dimensional cutouts, including a character who is literally referred to as “that racist guy” in an attempt to make this movie seem to have a conscious? The only refreshing break from this hatred is the race car venue’s security guard George who is given an earnest backstory.

The screenwriter is not the only one who hates the characters in this film as death’s design seems to hate them in particular. Typically in these movies, death targets a person who was initially spared with laser precision. In this film death goes after the final three characters by nearly causing another catastrophe in a movie complex. Death goes from “you are next on my list” to “I will literally kill everyone in this building if it means you die too.”

Interestingly, this is the only film in the franchise where, upon learning he will die if the protagonist’s theory of death is correct, a character decides he is going to live the rest of his life partying. In a series replete with anxiety and fear, Hunt is the only character who has this initial reaction. That’s about all I can say in his defense.

This film also featured two death sequences inspired by fears of my mother and my grandmother respectively: drowning in a car wash, and getting stuck inside an escalator. Those inspirations, combined with the NASCAR-inspired disaster and cringe-inducing allusions to being set in the south give this movie a dated vibe even now, only a decade after its release. The 3D effects are absolutely atrocious – a direct contrast to the creative applications of the technology in Final Destination 5. Another bridge (pun intended) to the next film within the franchise: the film within the film the characters watch at the end of this entry involves a person threatening to destroy a bridge, and the fifth movie begins with a suspension bridge collapse. From everything I’ve read, this is entirely a coincidence as the writers and directors were different for these two films.

Most Memorable Death: Getting exploded by a homicidal pool drain, which is coincidentally the only death most people would remember from this film if pressed for details.

4. Final Destination 1

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The first entry in this series seems prophetic in its own way – a movie about a fatal plane crash coming out in the the spring of 2000. As many reviews have point out, a person warning passengers the plane they were on was about to crash would be handled very differently post 9/11.

Unfortunately this film has not aged well, and as time goes on the character choices make less and less sense. But it treats itself with a gravitas more horror films should have about themselves, and gives us the hope that the characters may find an escape from death’s design. Unlike majority of the deaths in the franchise, the deaths of Tod and to a lesser extent Ms. Lewton are cruel and prolonged, showing how horrific the process of dying can be. It also set the stage for rest of the films in the franchise, creating a new and fresh formula at the time it was released.

Most Memorable Death: A classic bus scare done with lase precision as Terry gets decimated by a bus.

3. Final Destination 3

James Wong and Glen Morgan teamed up again (they worked on the first film) to try and round out the series as a trilogy. Final Destination 3 felt a bit stale when released, but when reexamined on its own merits makes slight improvements over the first film while keeping a similar tone and smoothing out some of the bizarre choices of the original. Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Wendy is a grounded, likable protagonist we can anchor ourselves to throughout her journey. A particularly poignant scene has her breaking down into tears while reaching out for emotional comfort from her sister:

This scene has dialogue that would have fell flat with the wrong actress in the role, but Winstead truly gives a heartfelt delivery. Director James Wong wisely situates us as viewers with her sister Julie, so we are hearing it as if Wendy is confessing her terrible guilt to us. In a movie full of other characters who act as one dimensional stereotypes, this scene truly sticks out.

Later Wong makes use of a deep focus shot, again bringing our attention both to Winstead’s turmoil and to the rift that still exists between Wendy and Julie as sisters. These poignant moments are interspersed between scenes of the infamous tanning bed deaths, which made it easy to not notice how well done they are the first time you watch this movie.

Meanwhile Ryan Merriman’s initially antagonistic but gradually likable Kevin is a nice contrast to Wendy. Their developing acceptance and reliance on one another without every explicitly dipping into romance is a refreshing relationship to see on the screen.

The ending is also great as it provides an epic potential death scene for our main character, while also giving us a degree of ambiguity over what really happens. Seeing Wendy moved on from high school, and with new friends, also makes it especially tragic to imagine her dying after all she has survived.

Most Memorable Death: At the risk of appearing blasphemous to other fans, I would have to say the nail gun death of Pip gets me the best even over the tanning bed scene.

2. Final Destination 2

If you were asked to describe a Final Destination film, chances are this is the one you would reference. Final Destination 2 starts with a memorably horrific disaster sequence most people have thought about: a highway pileup.

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In the first few scenes we are given a group of young characters who all reflect slasher archetypes: the reserved female protagonist Kimberly, her sexually provocative best friend, her weed obsessed stoner friend, and a generic nice guy (except for the bizarre moment when both guys cruelly laugh at a drifter whose bag falls apart next to their car). This slasher formula is then ripped apart when her three friends are immediately killed even after her premonition of the original crash nearly saves them.

The opening credits sequence of the film ingeniously recaps the first film in order to bridge the three year gap between the two, while also showing us how the premonition begins to implant itself in Kimberly’s mind. A news show interviewing someone about the bizarre fates of the survivors of flight 180 plays as Kimberly dozes in front of the TV, awoken by Death’s proxy (in the form of mortician Tony Todd) whispering her name to wake her up and show her the news story.

The disaster sequence of a highway pileup is a fear any commuter can see themselves in, and is reason enough to never get behind a logging truck. Equally unforgettable is the first individual death sequence in the movie featuring Evan the lottery winner. His impulsive lottery win purchases juxtaposed with his filthy apartment add an interesting element to his undeveloped character, as the threat of death surrounds him in the kitchen. Will it be an oil-induced stove fire? A magnet in the microwave? His hand stuck in the garbage disposal? Alas it is finally a the bottom foot of a fire ladder through an eye that does him in.

Tim and his single mom Nora have an endearing relationship – in just a few bits of dialogue we can see a real love between them. The movie does fall apart in the finale but the idea that a person meant to die giving birth would upset the balance is at bare minimum acceptable horror film logic.

This film is definitely more cynical and humorous in tone than the others in the franchise save for the fourth one (both the 2nd and 4th share a writer and director). It is is tough to rank this above the third but I admire this entries commitment to its badness. It manages to be entertaining without being totally devoid of a soul like the fourth film. And as stated earlier, this one has utterly iconic moments that have become important representations of the franchise as a whole.

Most Memorable Death: The ladder through Evan’s eye. Such epic buildup and intrigue all culminating into a satisfyingly sick moment when the ladder crashes down.

1. Final Destination 5

Final Destination 5 is brilliant. We are talking redeem a whole franchise (which was already going stale) after a disastrous entry. Unlike the fourth film which seems to unabashedly hate all its characters with the exception of George the security guard, Final Destination 5 shows a unique level of reverence for almost all its characters save for a few there to serve as comedic relief. In fact, this film comes the closest to fulfilling my lifelong fantasy of seeing more slasher films which put in an effort to make you care about their characters. Even the “jerk” character in this film (Peter) is pretty sympathetic up until his stress and grief consume him. He is sleeping with a company intern but also clearly cares about her, and is profoundly devastated when she dies. Likewise, the characters who do predominantly serve as comic relief don’t feel like they belong in an entirely separate movie like the ones in Final Destination 3.

It might be hard to fully appreciate this film without watching the rest in the franchise. At least the sucker punch of an ending would suffer a bit. But this would still be a great film to watch on its own merits. Interestingly enough, this is the only film in the franchise with a fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. This film also features a different director and writer who clearly make a significant difference in perfecting the franchise’s formula.

This entry seems learns well from its predecessors. Former scenes visiting the dentist and seeing a pedicure up close (both of which do not play directly into deaths) make us uncomfortable and tense on their own merits. Likewise, the use of a nail precariously balanced on a balance beam and a closeup of an open eye during Lasik surgery are enough to make the most seasoned gore hounds flinch. I still cannot watch the entire eye surgery scene in this film.

Although minor, I’d be remiss to also compliment how the film tackles corporate culture and the tensions that can rise between colleagues. Seeing the tension between the white collar HR representative (Nathan) and the blue collar Union Rep (Roy) adds a rich realism to the already stellar writing in the film. Even the romantic turmoil between Sam and Molly makes the viewer care simply by treating these characters and their struggles seriously. And this is all after four films with varying tones that often went for the cheap joke rather than the heart. A truly impressive finale that will probably be undermined by the inevitable reboot of the franchise.

Most Memorable Death: Candice’s death during gymnastics practice. This might be the greatest buildup to an individual’s death in the series.

Conclusion:

If you ever find yourself in a Final Destination movie and just want to end it quickly, shouting at other characters about how you have successfully cheated death is a surefire way to make it happen faster.

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