USA 2000, dir. James Wong, stars Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith
Final Destination is a kind of Dead Zone for smart-alec teenagers. But while David Cronenberg’s 1983 film was chilly and downbeat, this movie is larky and tongue-in-cheek, though it thankfully never quite crosses the line into Scream-style spoofy parody. This is a film made with a very specific audience in mind, and to view it in any other setting than a night-time cinema packed out with 18-25-year-olds would be like trying to watch a 3-D movie without the goggles. I think this explains the fact that its initial reviews in the US were absolutely diabolical. It wasn’t shown to the press – which is usually the sign of a real stinker – and when the critics did pay their bucks to see it, they pulled it to bits. This was in the same week they were wetting themselves over Erin Brockovich, and while I’d never claim Final Destination is the better of the two*, there’s much less between them than the polar-opposite reaction of those critics would have you believe.
The public voted with their feet over in the States, turning Final Destination into a modest hit which has already recouped its modest production cost a couple of times over. The innovative British ad campaign will no doubt boost takings over here – TV spots show candid footage taken with hidden cameras inside cinemas, showing audiences literally jumping out of their seats with fright as they squeal excited screams. Encouraged by these ads, I made a point of catching it on its first night, at the six o’clock showing at the Odeon in the middle of Nottingham. It wasn’t on one of the big screens, but this meant that very few seats were empty – and I was probably the oldest person in the room.
The movie went down a storm with this pre-pub crowd, and I did get carried along on the momentum, though not to the extent that I was blinded to its shortcomings. And while the audience noisily enjoyed the goings-on, there was very little jumping out of seats going on – the set piece shocks generated satisfied guffaws rather than yelps of terror, except maybe one jolt after the film’s best moment, an abrupt death involving a speeding bus that’s reminiscent of Samuel L Jackson’s breathtakingly unexpected mid-speech demise in Deep Blue Sea.
The film is droll rather than disturbing – there’s a nice running gag which identifies the music of John Denver as the soundtrack of imminent disaster, cruelly capped when a forty-something schoolmarm holds up one of his discs and sighs “Ah, momma’s favourite…” Such touches lift Final Destination slightly above the average, as does the storyline which is pretty original for this sort of fare – high-schooler Alex (a pudgy, pasty-faced Sawa) is boarding a school-trip flight to Paris (selected as the city of death thanks to Diana and Dodi, it seems) when he has a vivid premonition that the plane is going to explode shortly after take-off – the much-praised explosion is realistic, incidentally, though not quite in the same league as the similar sequences in Fight Club or Fearless. Alex understandably flips out, and in the ensuing scuffle he, along with six others in his party, is dumped off the plane – which, of course, explodes shortly after take-off. But then the surviving seven find themselves succumbing, one by one, to freakish “accidents” – and Alex, haunted by further premonitions, realises that Death isn’t easily cheated…
What makes Final Destination different from pretty much all other teen horror films is that there isn’t actually a “killer” involved at all. Death, like God, works in mysterious ways, manipulating household objects to do his dirty work in a manner often reminiscent of public information films from the seventies (“Polish a wooden floor and put a rug on it? You might as well set a man trap!”). You end up scanning each corner of the screen, trying to second guess which apparently innocuous item is going to set in motion a chain of events leading to a gory demise. This is because Death is often a bit of a Heath Robinson type here, especially in one deliriously elaborate sequence involving ice cubes, hot water, a coffee mug, some vodka, a computer terminal, a tea towel, a block of knives and a chair, which comes off as a kind of homage to Dario Argento, the Italian king of bizarre cinematic homicides.
In fact, it’s a surprise that Argento isn’t used for one of the character names – the film pays tribute to other horror legends by giving its participants names like Chaney (Lon, silent star of Phantom of the Opera), Lewton (Val, producer of Cat People) Browning (Tod, director of Freaks), Murnau and Schreck (respectively F.W. and Max, director and star of Nosferatu).This is a double joke – Murnau and Lewton’s version of horror was subtle and graceful, about as far removed from Final Destination‘s chugging slam-bangery as it’s possible to get; and using the names in this way is also a nod to Joe Dante’s The Howling, which did the same thing back in 1981.
But the name-checking also serves a thematic purpose. It’s not very easy to suspend disbelief when a character called “Billy Hitchcock” is running around with his name plastered across the back of his ice hockey top, and Final Destination wears its implausibility as a badge of pride. There’s a hilarious cameo from Tony (Candyman) Todd as a funeral director who handily explains the plot to the characters and audience, his every utterance informed by a ridiculously sinister omniscience. And the film ends with a coda set in a preposterously phoney ‘Paris, France.’ We know it’s a movie, they know it’s a movie, a dopey thrill ride we’ll stay on for a couple of hours, and it’s no more than that.
But even so there are flaws: if the Parisian coda feels tacked-on, that’s because it was added after the original ending – which featured the death of one of the main characters – tested badly. The film ends with a satisfying bang, but there’s an awkwardness in the way the last 20 minutes drag out their multiple climaxes that doesn’t sit easily with the otherwise efficient tone. James Wong (did he change his name in tribute to legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, or is he a descendant?) does an OK job, but this is the kind of material Steve Miner (Halloween H20, Lake Placid) would make a point of bringing in under the 90 minute barrier, and the film could do with a little tightening up here and there. And this is yet another horror movie which wouldn’t work at all if Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t invented the telephone. But these are only minor quibbles. Final Destination is pretty good for what it is, and, as the saying goes, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing. If not, you won’t.
by Neil Young
* Postscript : With Erin Brockovich rated 6/10 on this site and Final Destination 7/10, I now realise that this statement is somewhat misleading. Sorry for any confusion.