In anticipation of the release of Final Destination 5 (12th August) this is the first of a series of editorials examining each of the four films to date. As such plot points/spoilers will be mentioned.
It has been 10 years.
The release of Scream 2 1997 alerted Hollywood that there was new profits in new horror franchises. On the bandwagon of Wes Craven’s success came the films I Know What You Did Last Summer 1997, Urban Legends 1998 and Jeepers Creepers 2001 amongst others (this period was from Scream 1996 – Final Destination 3 2006 and was superseded by torture porn and Asian remakes. Ginger Snaps 2000 is an independent Canadian film made with no reference to studio fare). Final Destination 2000 is the most successful film/ franchise in the wake of Scream.
Watching it for the first time it was clear this was an attempt to start a franchise: there were survivors, an obligatory trick ending and an indestructible monster. That monster is death.
In the year 2000 death was all around more so than at any other time in a thousand years. Urban legend dictates when there’s a full moon the lunatics come out to play. At the turn of the millennium there was a lot of lunacy. There was fear. There was paranoia.
The Y2K bug1 foretold the collapse of civilisation2. The Waco Siege was fresh in memory and the Jonestown Massacre was revived to remind. Governments were on alert re suicide cults3. The East African US embassy bombings of 1998 were viewed by many to be a dry run for targets on the American mainland. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing showed where the US was vulnerable. Terrorism was in the air.
This was the age of The X-Files – a television show that spread paranoia amongst the simple minded. With these credits alumni James Wong directed and co-wrote Final Destination. His concept couldn’t be clearer: a group of teens cheat death – but can’t escape it. The concept would have been effective at any point in time. At the turn of the millennium Wong chose the best time.
The advertising industry has the ‘big idea’. Screenplays should have them too. This is beyond ‘high concept’4. This is the secret of the script. It is blood that cannot be transfused – or there is no point to the story. The secret of Final Destination is death. Not the Grim reaper but Death as a (super) natural force: a scheme of things.
This poses a dramatic risk: the victims have no monster to fight against and no chance of survival. Furthermore there is no motivation for their deaths. Where is the dramatic pulse?
The Final Destination big idea is inspired; every sentient being has a fear of death; even old people don’t want to die. This is dramatic impulse. The audience is placed in the eye of God and the characters cannot see death coming. The ones who live to die another day are the ones who drink at the waterhole like gazelle watching for signs.
In Nazi occupied Russia Hitler waged a war of annihilation. Partisans fought back and the Germans wrecked terrible vengeance; they burned villages; they killed civilians. In a particular episode the Nazis were coming. A villager pleaded with her brother to run with her into the forest. He refused. He was a school teacher before the war. He couldn’t see how the Nazis would harm him since he had done nothing wrong.
There are those who refuse to see the signs.
Final Destination is a studio picture and not an exploration of themes. Rosemary’s Baby 1968, The Exorcist 1973 and Carrie 1976 were a long time ago. Final Destination relies on set pieces to tell its story. There is no examination of the psychological effects of near death experiences à la war veterans. However it does acknowledge the effect on some of the characters.
Kristen Cloke plays teacher Val Lewton (wink) as a guilt racked survivor whose colleague died in her place. She blames lead character Alex (Devon Sawa) the seer. At one point an excited Alex describes himself as ‘a god’. His love interest chastises him; “you’re losing it”. This was the point the film could have targeted its (primary) teen audience with their own mortality in the same way the Brothers’ Grimm fairy tales challenge children.
Alas the filmmakers chose to concentrate on formula: premonition results in elaborate death. Yet the formula is imperfect. The first survivor to die is best friend Tod. In his case Death acts like an invisible Grim Reaper: the water on the bathroom floor whereupon he slips retracts after his demise. Subsequent deaths infer the incidental. The peril is depicted as even.
As is the case with horror films with a teen cast most of the acting is shoddy. The exceptions are the G-Men (Roger Guenveur Smith and Daniel Roebuck) and Devon Sawa. Sans a visible monster to cower from Sawa’s role as protagonist takes on more scope. The actor carries the film with enthusiasm. He could have become a star.
It was the film that became a star ie franchise – now in its second life. Final Destination is a crowd pleaser because of its set pieces much like James Bond and much better than Saw. In bypassing its narrative potential it has become a blueprint and a cash cow. It grossed an inflation adjusted $147million5 (worldwide) in 2000 – more than half of which came from outside the US. The spectacles of the death scenes were not lost in translation.
Final Destination excites more than it infuriates. It delivers on its poster and trailer. It’s a good horror film. It even has the endorsement of the Candyman.
Read more Thrill Fiction: Top 10 Coming Soon Movies 2011
1 Y2K Bug BBC News
3 suicide cults E Telegraph
4 high concept Writers Store
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