Everything about Final Destination probably looks demented, if not downright silly. If you’ve seen the trailers playing for a couple of weeks now on youth-oriented TV, you will have seen the lame plot (a kid keeps his friends off a plane flight doomed to explode), ooky wind and thunder effects, the sweaty-faced and way too pale teens, and most effectively, Tony Todd’s ominous rasp, “You can’t cheat death!”
As it turns out, the film is cagey about its generic dictates, so that you might forgive it for only using the formidable Todd (most famous for playing Candyman) for five minutes of screentime, when he shows up as a chatty mortician with the deep knowledge of “death’s design,” as well as an uncanny willingness to share it with two white kids who sneak into the morgue one night after their high school chum has supposedly hung himself and now lies before them, rigomortised and pasty-makeupped. As this Dr. Bludworth (please!), Todd is creepy and contemptuous in a major way, making sure these children respect his experience and, of course, his terrifying voice. For good measure, just as he finishes his speech, Bludworth pulls his drill out of dead-friend’s skull. Blood spurts, Bludworth smiles, the kids look like they’re about to puke.
And to think, they haven’t seen anything yet.
Slasher films are, admittedly, an acquired taste, but if you can appreciate the genre’s well-defined conventions, social commentaries, dark ironies, and gruesome antics, Final Destination delivers on all counts, with clever, cheesy, and sometimes crazy abandon. Directed by James Wong (Fox’s X-Files series), the movie is based on a story by self-proclaimed diehard Nightmare on Elm Street fan James Reddick (he says this movie “literally changed my life,” and, honestly, I can sympathize: the movie changed my life too). Reddick’s treatment which he sold to New Line some ten years after his first script was rejected by Chairman Bob Shaye made its way to a couple of producers, Craig Perry and Warren Zide, who helped the impressively persistent Radix to refine it, you know, make it more like other slasher flicks, with a series of young and good-looking victims, dastardly means of assault, and variously visible body fluids. Once the project was greenlighted, the heavyweights came on board: Wong and his X-Files and The Others co-producer Glen Morgan brought to the script their singular eeriness, and so, the final product might best be described as X-Files meets Elm Street meets shiny new crop of eminently slaughterable teens.
Among these is Alex Browning (Idle Hands’ Devon Sawa, excellent again), named for classic 30s horror film director, Todd Browning (Freaks, the first Dracula). In fact, the film is unabashed in its browning-nosing: Alex’s best friend and the “suicide” (scare quotes indicate some character concerns that the death is shadier than it looks on the surface, or rather, to adult eyes) I mentioned above is named Tod (Chad E. Donella), another kid is named Billy Hitchcock (played by American Pie‘s Stiffler, i.e., Seann Patrick Williams), and their ill-fated teacher is Val Lewton (Kristen Cloke, married to Morgan, late of Millennium, now starring in The Others), as in, the brilliant mind behind the original Cat People. As if all homaging this isn’t enough fun, the film goes to great lengths to remind you of its technical heritage, with harsh-cast shadows, huge close-ups of implements of destruction (city buses, knives, electrical wires, a shard of metal just waiting to fly through the air and slice through someone’s throat, repeated forced-perspective subjective shots, and hokey thunder-and-lightning effects. It’s all really, uh, spooky.
Final Destination‘s plot is a little more original, at least within the generic limits it sets for itself. The story essentially follows the guilt, fear, and madness increasingly shaping the lives of several high students who get off a Paris-bound plane due to a portentous vision (an exploding plane that is very scary) and ensuing hysteria from our boy Alex and then watch the thing blow up just after takeoff. Naturally, the kids generalized geeks Alex and Tod, jock Billy, dark-haired-post-punk-witchy girl Clear Rivers (Varsity Blues’ whipped cream girl, Ali Larter), psycho boy Carter Horton (Kerr Smith), and his perfect blond girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer) and their teacher, Miss Lewton, are afraid. They feel standard issue survivors’ guilt (Miss Lewton weeps to a friend that she should have stayed on the plane rather than sending her colleague to his death).
But more than that, the group is freaked out about Alex’s warning. They try to figure some meaning: was he somehow responsible for the explosion, as suggested by the federal investigators who show up to investigate the “airline tragedy” (as such events are termed in the news these days). These agents, Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schreck (Roger Guenveur Smith) are appropriately uptight and distrustful of each other as much as of their investigative subjects and are always arriving on the scene just in time to make Alex’s life even more hellish than it is already (one dark and rainy night, they find him checking on Miss Lewton’s car: he’s hoping to prevent an accident, they assume he’s looking to cause one and arrest him). The feds’ interrogation scenes are, in their way, tributes to all such scenes that have come before: the table spans wide between subject and questioners, the walls are starkly oppressive, and the wide angle lenses make the suits look ghastly and Alex panicky, all demonstrating just how strained the relations between generations are in slasher films (as if this trope even needs further demonstration).
The other freak-out possibility is that Alex is not responsible for the havoc, but can actually predict the future ecumenically, or, more particularly, can foresee the survivors’ deaths (since you can’t cheat death, the logic goes, their times are just waiting to catch up with them). In the first instance, Stiffler that is, Billy (it’s difficult to think of this kid as anyone but his first prominent role, which is, I suppose, a testament to how well he embodied that role) starts pushing Alex for predictions: will he get into the college he wants? will he get a date with the girl he wants? Because Alex doesn’t have control of the information he seems to be collecting, such queries are more anxiety-producing than empowering, and he rejects them and then isolates himself. This, of course, is exactly what he shouldn’t be doing in this kind of movie.
True to generic form, Alex’s parents are of the absent variety. And so, he suffers disbelievers and believers alike, alone. In addition to his harassment by the authorities, Alex has to contend with Carter’s meanness (which usually involves his big muscle-ish car: he runs his fellow survivors down with it, then drives like a suicidal maniac with them in it). But again, the movie is smart enough to respect its viewers. It never makes the Carter-Alex, or more exactly, Carter-everyone else, conflicts so dramatic that they overwhelm the narrative trajectory or thematic focus. Carter’s a comic gadfly, a distraction from the real issue, which is, how do you do manage (or, if you’re a character, survive) a slasher film with no slasher in it?
Luckily, Alex does have a sympathetic ear in Clear, who cultivates her own brand of spirituality when she’s not wearing overalls and soldering metal artworks in her garage (she seems a bit old to be in high school). Clear accompanies Alex to the morgue (where they encounter Candyman, I mean, Bludworth) and then helps him figure out the precise “design” they’re dealing with (believe it or not, the post-plane-explosion death order has to do with the plane’s seating chart: diabolic!). While death does find ingenious ways to do its work shorting computer monitors, water or vodka sinuating across the floor it doesn’t find a solid form here. But its abstraction makes the whole shebang more fascinating rather than less (the filmmakers make intelligent and occasionally harrowing use of forced perspectives). And it allows for some inventive savagery in addition to the usual slasher film humor to be found in the ridiculousness of situations or unexpectedness of assaults. When, at one point, Alex booby-traps his hideaway cabin against death’s treacherous design wearing gloves to open his spammish canned meal, taping and padding every possible sharp edge in the place it’s clear that death is winning the sanity race. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?