Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Counting Down the Zeroes: Final Destination

[Here is another film review I submitted for Film for the Soul's look back at the last nine years of film, starting with the year 2000. You can read all of the reviews on this blog, aptly titled Counting Down the Zereos, which archives everything year by year. It looks like entries for 2001 will be starting up soon, so be on the look out for those; my addition for the year 2001 will be David Mamet's Heist.]

One of the great cover boxes of all time is the 1980’s horror film Happy Birthday to Me. On the cover is the image of a shish-kebab going through a dude’s mouth. The film boasts “some of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see!" Well, thoughts of this classic 80’s slasher film came to mind when I watched Final Destination. This is my second time watching the film, and I have to say it holds up reasonably well. Although, the deaths aren’t that bizarre (just kind of clever) they certainly would get that way with the subsequent sequels spawned by the success and popularity of this unique take on the slasher film.

James Wong is an "X-Files" alum, and he brought that eerie, supernatural element to the horror subgenre known as the slasher film. Even though there isn’t a visible killer in Final Destination, the main characters (naturally all teenagers) are knocked off one by one as if they inhabited an 80’s slasher film (like Happy Birthday to Me). But Wong’s pedigree and penchant for the odd (thanks to his time on the "X-Files") elevate Final Destination above the usual slasher drek, and it’s easy to see now, nine years later, why the film has spawned so many successful sequels.

The film relies heavily (as all horror films do) on the viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief, as we are led to take seriously that Death is after all of us, and that it has a design – this is the anti-Antone Chigurh. As the film opens we are introduced to a bevy of characters – all of the necessary ingredients for a dead teenager movie. Our main character is Alex (Devon Sawa) and of course there are your basic high school clichés: the cool guy (Kerr Smith), his girlfriend (Amanda Detmer), the jock (Sean William Scott), and the weird isolated girl (Ali Larter). As we meet these characters we learn that they are all embarking on their senior trip to Paris. As Alex boards the plane he starts to see ominous signs that point towards a not-so-pleasant flight. Thank God this was filmed before September 11th, because if it hadn’t the amazing imagery and horror of the following scenes would have definitely been cut by the uber-PC Hollywood producers. What follows are scenes of horror from Alex’s dream, then when he awakens, all of the same stuff happens in a moments of horrifying déjà-vu. It’s at this point that film stakes its claim that it’s not your average horror movie, as director Wong creates a tense and nightmarish scene worthy of the "Twilight Zone".

Of course Alex ends up being correct, and gets the aforementioned main characters kicked off the plane in time for Billy (Sean William Scott) to utter the words “and there they go” as the plane flies off, only then to explode in long shot in a moment of true horror. The windows explode and Alex and co. watch as their fellow classmates fall to the ground. It’s an intense scene, and Wong handles it perfectly as he keeps things in long shot, instead of gratuitous close-up; by not showing us scenes from the plane’s POV, Wong evokes a feeling of fear and uncertainty rarely found in modern horror films.

This event kicks off the basic plot for the movie as Alex has cheated Death, thus throwing Death’s plan off kilter. Thus proceeds scene after scene of your standard slasher formula, but with a bit more panache than we’re accustomed to seeing. Despite the film’s best scene being 15 minutes into the film Wong and fellow "X-Files" alum, writer Glen Morgan, still manage to create some memorable deaths that made me reminisce about the oddity that is Happy Birthday to Me.

One such scene is the death of Billy. After Alex saves Carter's life by pulling him out of his stalling car that sits on the train tracks (with train bearing down and all, of course), shrapnel of the car wavers on the ground and is lightly lifted up by the force of the passing train. Wong plays with the audience and their knowledge of horror film conventions by stalling the inevitable, and keeping the obvious in sight (the shrapnel), and then delivering in spades. There is no false scare, Wong shows us the object that will eventually ruin Billy’s day and then gives us the payoff in the less-than-gory manner (almost William Castle-like) found in the death scenes of Happy Birthday to Me. There's something refreshing about the way Wong films this scene, instead of buckets of blood splattering and gushing, he keeps his camera pulled back, and gives us the scene from the POV of Alex. Wong understands what few horror filmmakers today do: that you don't need to dwell in the details of gore for something to have an affect on the viewer. There's a time and place for gore in horror films, but there's also something to be said about the classical elements of the genre that were founded in giving the audience a good time, rather than just trying to gross them out; those elements are found throughout Final Destination.

Another great “gotcha” moment is when cool guy Carter (played by fellow cool name actor Kerr Smith) confronts Alex about his “visions”. He wants to know who’s next, ah, but it’s not that simple, and so of course Carter starts to pick a fight with Alex. Terry proclaims that “they died, we lived, I will not let this flight define my life” (which actually is better dialogue than what most slasher film characters are given), and then proceeds to tell Carter to eff off, only to be hit by a bus out of nowhere. Watching this scene a second time, it was fun to pick up the clues and the foreshadowing that I totally missed upon first viewing: prior to the bus death, Alex actually sees a reflection of a bus in the window while he’s talking to the most horribly named character in the film, Clear (Ali Larter – get it, her name is Clear, she is the only other person who can “see” Death’s plan because she believes Alex and his visions…brilliant!) – What is this “Young Goodman Brown”? Anyway, Alex looks on the street but there is no bus there, so what caused the reflection? It’s actually a nice bit of foreshadowing by Wong.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cameo from Horror stalwart Tony Todd (Night of the Living Dead, Candyman, Wishmaster). He plays the creepy coroner who informs Alex and Clear about Death’s formula. The scene is wonderful in showcasing Todd’s overacting skills, especially the way he delivers this doozy of a line in a response to Alex’s question about how to beat death, Todd says: “you don’t want to even fuck with that MacDaddy!” Brilliant. If you’ve never witnessed Todd’s performance in Tom Savani’s remake of Night of the Living Dead, then you simply must put that at the top of your Netflix queue; it’s a remarkable performance as the man can emote like no other.

The film was hugely successful for a horror flick, and it spawned two more sequels, each one making more money than the previous. The director’s also upped the ante for each subsequent film, as they had to come up with new, innovative ways to kill people and continue the whole Cheating Death storyline. Wong would return to film the third installment (which included another fantastic opening, this time set on a rollercoaster), but could never quite capture what made the original so endearing to horror fans.

Final Destination is a rare entity, a modern horror film that stays true to its slasher roots, but tweaks it just enough so that the formula, and the deaths, don’t feel as antiquated as most of the 80’s slasher films feel today. Wong’s previous work on "The X-Files" definitely gave him an advantage in taking what is really a silly gimmick of a plot, and turning it into something eerie and entertaining; just like an episode of "The X-Files" – sure it may seem silly on paper, but it’s oh so very wonderful and innovative in its execution.


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