20 for 20: Eric Kicks Us Off with the FINAL DESINATION Series

In my view, for a substantial horror franchise – let’s say around four or more entries – to be successful, while a consistent thematic tone that carries throughout the series that eventually becomes what the movies are known for is important and necessary to make the universe that these films exist in to become somewhat believable, in the end it really falls squarely on the writers and directors that are brought on with each entry to have them carry on the main crux of the series while also bringing their own brand of visual flair, storytelling mechanics and overall ambience to the table. Another aspect that shouldn’t be ignored is the need for a single individual, usually in a producer role, who serves as the franchise’s caretaker, keeping the integrity that they want to preserve in each installment, despite the change in cast, director, writer etc. The Friday the 13th franchise had Frank Mancuso Jr., A Nightmare on Elm Street had Robert Shaye, and the topic of my article today, the Final Destination franchise, also has this important figure present, and that is Craig Perry. The Final Destination franchise currently consists of five entries and has a pretty straightforward idea that permeates throughout each installment, “What if you interrupted Death’s design?”. Each movie has this basic concept fleshed out into the overall concept of someone having a premonition of a major fatal disaster (be it a highway pile-up, a mid-air plane explosion, etc.), subsequently removes themselves from the deadly event that is about to occur, along with a select group of other individuals who get scooped up along the way, said fatal destructive even happening and then “death” coming after them. The death figure aims to complete what was originally intended, so one by one, by way of elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque unfolding of events, death takes back what was meant come his way all along. As with all franchises that spawn so many entries, they have their amazing highs and they certainly have their share of bottomed out lows, but I must admit that the Final Destination franchise, my initial entry in the Farsighted “20 for 20” series looking back at films released over the past twenty years, is one of the most consistent and entertaining series of the last twenty years, and rightfully deserves its place amongst the greats of the horror genre.

Final Destination, released in March of 2000, follows the story of a high school student (Devon Sawa) who, about to embark on his senior class trip to France, experiences a vivid premonition of the plane catching fire and subsequently exploding mid-air, causing him to freak out and demand to be taken off the plane. In the scuffle, a few other students and teachers are also removed. After the plane ends up taking off and exploding as predicted, therefore ruining Death’s initial design for all these unfortunate souls, the remaining survivors begin to die by mysterious circumstances. This inaugural entry, directed by X-Files alum James Wong, takes on a very serious dark tone and is primarily filmed during the evening hours, always keeping a lingering sense of dread and malaise throughout. The opening sequence of the plane explosion was very effective in delivering the true horror of this tragic event. In particular, the part when the plane eventually explodes, post-premonition, and we see it burst into flames through the airport window, ALL with minimal sound, until the sonic boom of sound breaks all the windows. The death sequences lying within are fine examples of wire-tight tension that you can cut with a butter knife. Some of the brutal kills that are specifically memorable in this entry include the infamous death scene involving an unexpected introduction of a passing bus and the high-tension piece that involves a clothesline, a razor, a convenient leak and lots of shiny surfaces to become slippery. The performances are all respectable across the board, with main lead Devon Sawa coming off as the weak point among the group playing our lead protagonist Alex. My MVP of the film is My Bloody Valentine remake star Kerr Smith, proving more capable of delivering better emotional resonance of the situation that is unfolding all around them. I also appreciated the first of many cameos of the charismatic and mysterious Tony Todd, playing a mortician named Bludworth, who seems to have a keen insight to the unfortunate situation our main characters find themselves in.

Final Destination 2, released three years later in January 2003, took on a decidedly different tone and decided to plant its tongue firmly in cheek. Directed by David R. Ellis, this entry essentially follows the same plot arch as the original, but it immediately distinguishes itself with the opening disaster sequence chosen for this entry, a truly grandiose and terrifying highway accident. This scene is the most effective, frightening and purely relatable opener of the entire series, forgoing the need for any music score and relying solely on the sounds of cars crashing and flipping through the air, bodies being crunched and bludgeoned by heavy objects, and copious screams filling the screen. I can’t even begin to imagine how this was all designed, set up and shot with such perfection and precision, but this entire sequence still goes down as a prime example of how to shoot a disastrous scene for ample effect. The deaths that are bestowed upon these unfortunate souls’ post-crash vary between super sudden and lingering on for full tension effect. One of the more memorable kills is the double whammy death of two characters, started by an accidentally activated air bag that directly leads to the sudden death of another by a flying barb wire fence. The first major death scene, which involves a trash disposal, some spaghetti, an apartment fire and a rickety old fire escape ladder, is the very definition of tension, even having elements or surprise and relief layered in before going for the jugular. This entry, while definitely leaning into the more fun aspect of the concept, has some tonally wonky shifts that try to make it more serious than the movie needs to be here and there, and it suffers in those circumstances when compared to the tone it leans into through most of the movie. Performances pretty much range from hokey but still fun (Jonathan Cherry’s coke addicted Rory) to the just plain awful (main stars AJ Cook and Michael Landes, as Kimberly and Thomas respectively), but due to the kind of vibe this movie is going for, the acting supports the dark humor on display better than it should. Ali Larter, the only returning cast member from the original, has the most absurd and laughable dialogue I’ve ever heard, but for some reason, she’s so into it that I feel the need to let it slide. Tony Todd once again shows up as the mortician Bludworth, and he is locked in for full-on camp mode with his brief five-minute screen time. Overall, I tend to enjoy this entry more than the original based solely on its epic opening crash, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s that terrifying and technically sound!

Final Destination 3, released three more years later in February of 2006, featured the return of original director James Wong and seems to come off as a direct critique on the tone and feeling that FD2 (Final Destination 2) conveyed. Wong decided to return the series to the more dour and serious tone that was evoked with the first one. The disaster this time, which is the unfortunate premonition of our new heroine, played by the lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is an amusement park malfunction/crash on a rollercoaster called Devil’s Flight. I believe this may not be the most popular opinion, but I believe, after watching the entire series, that FD3’s opening disaster/crash sequence is the least thrilling and tension-filled of the franchise. I felt that the deaths of the various individuals on the ride were somewhat tame and quickly edited, and I never felt any real rush of fear or dread that should be evoked, especially considering the crackerjack openers of FD1 and 2. I did appreciate, however, the new wrinkle to the general plot we have come to know and love, which is in the form of photos that Winstead’s Wendy character took during the time at the amusement park, as each shot is giving hints as to how each individual will eventually meet their fate later in the movie. Despite the slight letdown of the opening setpiece, this entry does have some of more ingenious and inventive kills of the series. These consist of the simply awful and brutal tanning bed scene (of which I will not further elaborate on for maximum squeamish reactions) and the super elaborate death later in the film that involves multiple home improvement and hardware related shenanigans within a Home Depot-like store. The acting across the board is actually quite good, with established actors such as Winstead, Ryan Merriman and a decidedly off-kilter Kris Lemche provide good characters and personalities to latch onto throughout. At the end of the day, while this entry was better than I remembered due to the collection of good performances and inventive new ways for these poor individuals to perish, the lackluster opening crash sequence brings this down as a middling entry in the series. Side note – the movie, in effort to illustrate the new plot point of the pictures being a premonition of their death, decided to include a photo of the Twin Towers with a plane shadow across one of their sides. This is done in extreme poor taste, especially considering this was only five years after that fateful day. That never should have made it into the final cut, but I ultimately won’t let it deter my overall outlook on this entry.

The Final Destination, which many perceive to be the worst entry in the series, released in August 2009 (once again, three years after the previous installment) AND in 3D, which was taking off at the time due to the success of James Cameron’s Avatar. After viewing this again, and liking more than I remember, I also do believe that this is the low point of the series. Following in Wong’s return after skipping an entry, FD2 director David R. Ellis returned to the helm and, once again, swings wildly in tone from the serious nature of FD3 back to the more tongue in cheek style of Ellis’ FD2. The opening disaster sequence this time gets staged at a NASCAR-like racetrack where everything that can go wrong does, leading to mass destruction and carnage with amply gore and viscera thrown at the screen. While technically being just another car crash scene, as in FD2, and was brimming to the extreme with slightly subpar CGI effects, it ended up being quite bloody and intense, with extreme flames, flying car parts, and stone structures used to great killing effect. The acting, if one can call it that, is lackluster across the board for the main actors in this flick. I didn’t feel anything for the four main leads and essentially wasn’t invested much if they would live through this or succumb to a horrible demise. The lone bright spot in the cast is accomplished actor Mykelti Williamson (Forrest Gump), showing up as a security guard from the NASCAR race that survives the incident. His backstory, which involves alcoholism, divorce and suicide, is surprisingly well developed and ends up making him one of the best characters in the series. The death sequences are a mixed bag overall, but I do have to say that the most gross kill of the series goes to the pool sequence (it must be seen to be believed), and one of the more tense sequences definitely goes to the entire hair salon sequence, involving so many red herring devices that when the actual kill shot occurs, it knocks your socks off in the most fun and brilliant way. This entry happened to have been produced during a writer’s strike that was occurring at the time, which seems to lead to the bare bones story/script and disjointed nature of the pacing from scene to scene. It feels somewhat like the 3D piece was added simply to cover up the inefficiencies in these areas.  However, this movie does have probably the 2nd best opening credits sequence in the series, which consists of the various kills that have occurred across the first three FD movies, but displayed in 3D and using X-ray vision for added effect. Overall, despite being marginally better than I remembered, this entry seemed like it would be the nail in the coffin for the franchise.

Final Destination 5, released two years later in August of 2011 (and the first entry without a three year gap!), just might be the best entry in the entire series. How could the fourth sequel in a horror franchise be the best of the bunch? First off, we’re greeted with simply the best opening credits of the entire franchise. The credits, which show various instruments of death and mayhem from the first four entries crashing through a pane of glass for each item, is slick and cool since it was also shot in 3D, but it is also accompanied by a slamming music score and font for their credits that has a SUPER Friday the 13th-vibe attached to it, and it immediately endeared me to it. Speaking from a technical, visual, atmospheric standpoint, this entry seems to stand head and shoulders above its fellow entries. This flick directed by newcomer Steven Quale, who is a disciple of legendary director James Cameron, working on Terminator 2, The Abyss and True Lies in various roles and positions, among other films as well. This fresh new blood commanding the ship (The first four entries alternated between the same two directors, David R. Ellis and James Wong) was simply the best choice in order to right the ship after the critical and audience reactions to The Final Destination. The opening disaster sequence, this time taking place on a suspension bridge, is the most technically brilliant and insane sequence of the lot. This is, by far, the 2nd best opening of the series, right behind the sweat inducing highway crash from FD2. The entire scene was very intense, amazing and infused with seamless and well-done CG, and just conveys it as a scary situation to be involved in. In a cool twist, after our lead has the usual premonition needed to avoid death, showing the characters still having to escape the collapsing bridge and avoiding obstacles (in previous entries, when the disaster actually happened, it was off camera or quickly done in the background, as we see the survivors watch in horror) was a nice touch and emitted prime tension. This entry also houses some of the most dread and nerve-wracking kill sequences of the franchise, inviting pure visceral screaming at the screen to try and alert these characters to lurking dangers, almost making it uncomfortable to watch. Some of the great kill sequence are the absolutely superb gymnastic scene involving so many dangerous items and red herrings your brain simply can’t take it and the laser eye surgery sequence, with a poor helpless woman strapped to a chair during its entirety, stand out as technical and horror marvels. The acting across the board is a step above most of the series, with each actor doing their best to make us care about what will become of them. My special shout out goes to Tom Cruise clone Miles Fisher, bringing multiple layers to his character that wasn’t expected and completely welcome for this type of role/character. If you’ve seen this movie, you already know how the movie (and, for the moment, series as a whole) concludes, and let me tell you, this is one of the most satisfying and amazing endings to a franchise or movie I have ever seen. When I re-watched this movie for this article, I was stunned at how this is still an amazingly effective ending and the only true way to cap this series and tie that bow on real nice. It was also nice to see Tony Todd reprise his role as the all-knowing mortician/coroner Bludworth, showing a few more layers in his grim scenes. This man is a national treasure and must be preserved.

So, there you have it. The Final Destination series is, in the end, a horror franchise that was surprisingly consistent in its quality and overall effectiveness to scare the hell out of you (a misstep or three here and there). What other series can you say that the fifth entry is one, if not the best, in the series? After viewing the entire slate, I have decided on my definitive ranking of the Final Destination franchise, for anyone who might be curious. It goes like this – FD 5, FD 2, FD, FD 3 and The Final Destination (4). This is a great and well thought out horror franchise that doesn’t happen very often. People cared about this series, and did their best to make each entry the best possible movie that could be, and it shows on the inventive ways the lore is extended and the care that went into each tension-filled death sequence, whether it ended up ultimately a success or not. If you haven’t checked out this series yet, I implore you to check it out now. Just remember, if you are the unfortunate one to get a premonition one day, death has a design and you simply just can’t cheat him of what he wants. Sucks.

Eric Mayo
Horror Hound / Playstation Guru
Graduated from Queens College with double major in film and media studies. The 1st horror movie he fell in love with was Evil Dead 2, which is still my favorite. My favorite horror video game is Resident Evil, and I have a specific love for the old school pre-rendered glory of the original Playstation trilogy. My goal is to live life by my rules, enjoy the hobbies and activities that I deem fun and NOT what the world expects of someone my age.
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