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The Liberating Beauty of the Final Destination Movies

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The many dangers of our sad little lives are weaponized by these horror films. Which might be a reason why they’re so strangely cathartic.
Photo: Shane Harvey/New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock

Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection — the third in a special monthlong celebration of horror — comes from film critic Bilge Ebiri, who will begin his screening of Final Destination 2 on October 16 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch his live commentary, and look ahead at next week’s movie here.

Humanity has never been so fragile as it is in the Final Destination movies. Our bodies are effectively water balloons filled with blood, ready to explode, our heads mere tubers just waiting to be crushed, sliced, grated, or meringued. It’s the most harrowing of horror franchises, and the most ridiculous. Harrowing because there’s no bad guy, no masked monster with a backstory, no villain waiting to be defeated — just death itself, an eternal and invincible force that always triumphs in the end (and can turn the average kitchen or elevator or garage into a Rube Goldberg–inspired kill room). Ridiculous because the individual deaths, especially as the series wears on, become impossibly ornate, abstract, and silly. And for those of us who in real life spend a lot of time catastrophizing matters both big and small (which at this point might be all of us), a Final Destination movie serves as both an indulgence and an inoculation for bad thoughts.

Directed by James Wong (who would also direct Final Destination 3), the first film establishes the series template, though it doesn’t quite perfect it. (That’d be the second film.) Right after boarding a flight to Paris with the rest of his French class, high school senior Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) has a detailed, beat-by-deadly-beat vision of a fiery accident in the sky. He freaks out, and in the ensuing chaos a few of his companions are forced off the airplane, which takes off without them and promptly explodes. Over the following days, however, the survivors themselves start to die off in a series of Byzantine freak accidents. Turns out that, by getting off that doomed flight, they disrupted death’s design, and now death is fixing the error by plowing its way through them in the order in which they would have died originally.

Subsequent entries hewed to the same structure: In the second, it’s not a plane crash but the most grotesque, terrifying freeway pile-up in cinematic history. In the third, it’s a doozy of a rollercoaster accident. In the fourth (called, simply, The Final Destination), it’s an explosive racetrack calamity. In the fifth, it’s the bridge collapse to end all bridges. Each movie also features the survivors discovering a new way to potentially thwart death’s design. In the first, they realize that if they can force death to skip one of them, they can break the curse. In the second, they decide that what’s needed is a new life that can be brought into the world. In the third, photographs provide clues as to how the characters will die, giving them a chance to stop the kills before they happen. In the fifth, they realize that what they really need to do is to take another life, thus trading someone else’s death for their own. By and large, their plans don’t work out. Save for one entry, the final shot of every Final Destination movie shows those who made it to the end buying it, often in the most gruesome way imaginable.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t all that charmed by the first picture when I saw it back in 2000. I even remember some genuinely heated debates with a few of my more forward-thinking colleagues about it. I found the idea nifty, but the character moves seemed familiar and the deaths themselves laughable. I failed to understand the point: The plot was basically just an excuse to stage all these ludicrous but highly cinematic set pieces, ranging from the nerve-racking (the opening plane explosion) to the shockingly sudden (one person gets mowed down by a bus in what is still probably the best getting-mowed-down-by-a-bus moment in contemporary horror cinema) to the absurdly elaborate (a piping-hot mug is filled with ice-cold vodka, thereby cracking it and leaking vodka all over the floor and a computer monitor, which then explodes and lodges a glass shard in the throat of the victim, who then slips on the spilled vodka, falls, desperately reaches for a dishrag and winds up toppling a knife stand, stabbing herself in the heart). In that sense, the film’s various nods to horror history — the characters have names like Hitchcock, Browning, Murnau, Lewton, Chaney, Schreck, Wiene, etc. — come off as more than empty tributes. Final Destination, for all its millennial schlockery, is clearly suffused with a love for the cinematic, for the possibilities of the medium.

But it was the second film, directed by the late David R. Ellis (who would also go on to helm the fourth installment, not to mention the legendary Snakes on a Plane), that made me a believer — in part because, as someone who spends an obscene amount of time worrying about traffic accidents, its masterful opening pile-up sequence got me good, especially on a big screen. But Final Destination 2 might also be the most human of the series. Other entries usually show the survivors at odds with one another, but here they actually try to work together, so that when they do die, it feels like a genuine loss. Final Destination 2 is the platonic, blood-soaked ideal of the paradox that fuels much of slasher horror: our simultaneous desire to see the victims get away and to watch them die. Here, because they’re not quite the entitled, horny, generically jerky teens we’re used to from other horror flicks (in an underrated little twist, those kids all die in the opening scene of the movie), we actually feel for them — so that each hair’s-breadth escape is an anxious reprieve and the ensuing, preposterous death a real defeat.

In this sense, Final Destination 2 is cruel. A mother watches her son, who has just avoided an insane series of mishaps in a dentist’s office, get flattened by a giant windowpane. A few scenes later, that same grieving mother is slowly, agonizingly beheaded by an elevator. Later, a hapless stoner gives one of our heroes the keys to his apartment, mournfully telling them to go and toss away his drug paraphernalia and his porn stash after he dies so that it won’t break his mom’s heart (motherhood is a weird recurring theme throughout the film); not long after, he is sliced to ribbons by a section of barbed-wire fencing that’s launched through the air by a news van explosion caused by the combination of a fuel leak and another just-killed (trapped by a log + pipe through the headrest + accidental airbag deployment) character’s dropped cigarette. The movie takes the average slasher’s combination of laughter and faux-pathos to stomach-churning extremes.

It also adds another existential twist. At one point, our heroes all realize that they have some bizarre connection to the events of the first film; each of them, it turns out, had already survived a narrow brush with death long before the pile-up that brought them together. Death, much like life, appears to be a long string of tiny missed connections with multiple ripple effects. The great Krzysztof Kieslowski spent his whole career making pictures about this phenomenon. He died before this series was born (coincidence?), but I wonder what he might have made of these movies.

Later installments focus less on fate and more on one-upping each other with the kills. They’re emptier, perhaps, but still, in their own ways, spectacular. The set pieces in Final Destination 3, for example, involve amusement parks and carnivals and hardware stores, and usually make zero sense. At times, it feels like we’re just watching Dadaist montages of various objects falling, tipping, slipping, in a deranged variation on Ballet Mécanique. But they are gloriously cinematic all the same, creating a real tension between the hard edges of all these machines and tools and the soft textures of all us oh-so-fragile humans. The fourth Final Destination (the one with the racetrack accident) is all about cars and mechanics and other vehicle. We get to see a woman smushed by a flying tire, and a neo-Nazi get dragged, flaming, behind his own truck. Final Destination 5, the silliest of the franchise, contains the single most nonsensical and amazing death I’ve ever witnessed in a film: After elegantly avoiding an errant thumbtack that has landed on her balance bar, a gymnast botches her landing and is instantly turned into a human pretzel.

The many minor dangers of our sad little lives — fans, spills, electrical sockets, pool drains, cutlery — are weaponized by these movies. Which might be, ironically, another reason why they’re so strangely cathartic. In retrospect, it seems weirdly apropos that the first Final Destination opened with a plane crash in 2000; one year later, the real world would enter the Age of Fear, with its constant security checks, its color-coded threat levels, its enduring sense of inchoate menace. That fear has never gone away; much like death in these movies, it migrates into new forms with each passing year.

Such neverending, exhausting anxiety can make life look like a series of booby traps. You waste your days creating what if scenarios in your head. We all have it to some degree. Some us more than others. Perhaps it depends on the day, or the stage of life we’re at, or if we’re parenting children, or if we’ve been previously traumatized by real-life horrors. Sometimes (cough) circumstances (cough) conspire (cough) in such a way (cough) that we’re all (cough) worried about (cough) the same thing (cough) at the same time (cough cough). The Final Destination films meet us halfway and say, You’re right. That socket is going to blow. That oil will spill. That crane will collapse. That kayak you hung on the wall will fall. Those weights can and will crush your head like a cantaloupe. You’re right to be worried about that automated car wash and those firecrackers and those slippery bathroom tiles and that pool drain. All these things will kill you. And won’t that be stupid?

Weirdly, it’s a liberating thought.

Final Destination 2 is available to stream on Netflix and to rent on Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.

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