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Is Final Destination the best horror franchise we have right now?

Jacqueline MacInnes Wood looks terrified waiting for laser eye surgery.
Jacqueline MacInnes Wood in Final Destination 5 Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

The Final Destination movies are like slasher flicks where the slasher is God. No one ever says God, of course. It’s always Death with a capital D — as in, Death knows you didn’t get on that plane that exploded, so he’s going to lock you in a tanning booth or squash you with a plate of glass. But it’s really a semantic distinction, isn’t it? God, Death, the Grim Reaper: By any name, He has a plan for you. Cheat that plan and it’s your ass. Or rather, the intestines he’ll suck out of your ass with a swimming pool pump.

When this God smites, He doesn’t use lightning. He uses whatever’s lying around: a nail gun, a car engine, the ladder of a fire escape. And like an assassin assuring that there will be no questions afterwards, He makes it look like an accident. At times, He gets very elaborate, setting up a domino effect of misfortune, killing you with one thing instead of the other thing. This is a God with a sense of humor. It’s just a really twisted one.

The premise is always the same: Some young stud or babe has a premonition of certain doom, then save themselves and a few others from a horrible freak accident — a plane crash, a multi-car pileup, a malfunctioning roller coaster, etc. — only to become targeted by a supernatural force that picks off the survivors one by one through a series of Rube Goldbergian mishaps. Glen Morgan and James Wong pulled the idea from an X-Files spec script, replacing Mulder and Scully with a group of teens played by the likes of Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, and a post-American Pie Seann William Scott. 

Three teen sit and stare in horror in Final Destination.
New Line

In defiance of the title, there are now five Final Destinations (with a sixth on the way), each adhering to a formula as rigid as the various metal poles and pipes skewering their revolving-door cast of victims. They’re all essentially the same movie, which would be more galling if that movie wasn’t such a hoot — part ingenious suspense contraption built on our collective fear of the great beyond, part outrageously mean-spirited splatter comedy.

The big draw is the set pieces, those grisly, life-sized games of Mouse Trap that are the franchise’s raison d’être. They tend to end with some swift and hideous punch line, but the real dark pleasure is in the setup — all escalation and misdirection, as the filmmaker crosscuts around a room, homing in on tiny mechanical failures that multiply and compound, creating a chain reaction of impending carnage.

Final Destination 5 | Gym | Warner Bros. Entertainment

Take, for example, an early, diabolically prolonged sequence in the fifth movie. A college gymnast practices her routine on a balance beam. A single screw falls from the ceiling and lands pointy side up. Will she step on it? Or maybe instead onto an exposed wire crackling on the floor below, as a small puddle of water creeps precariously close? A loose bolt groans on a nearby training bar, slipping gradually out of its socket. A fan ominously turns and turns, waiting to play its part in the mayhem to come. If you’ve seen the film, you know the outcome. You’re probably wincing thinking about it.

In its crassly commercial way, Final Destination is a director’s franchise. The premise demands a certain formal discipline — a commitment to legibly laying out the ruthless this-follows-that logic of the death sequences. The best of them are master classes of associative editing, leading the audience by the hand through the mechanisms of an infernal machine. Certainly, this is not an actor’s franchise. There is scarcely a single memorable performance across the whole series, though it does occasionally pull in some real talent, like one-time scream queen Mary Elizabeth Winstead or the Candyman himself, Tony Todd, who acts as a kind master of mordant ceremonies via his role as a mortician who’s a little too unfazed by all the “coincidental” fatalities.

Final Destination 3 (2006) | Sultans Gym Scene | 31kash Movie Clips

The characters are, by definition, expendable. Final Destination barely feigns interest in them as people; these movies are generally as uncaring as a universe that shuffles everyone off their mortal coil. It may be the only running franchise that regularly terminates its entire cast — usually twice, in fact, if you count the opening vision of calamity. This might be depressing were it not so frequently, ghoulishly hilarious. There’s gallows humor, and then there’s a jock loudly laughing in the face of death, before smashing his own skull with a weight machine. This is also a series with no qualms about barbecuing or flattening children. The sick joke is on all of us, and at the expense of mortality itself: One minute you’re here, the next you’re roadkill.

Beneath the nasty laughs, Final Destination taps into an existential, even universal dread. It’s like a worst-case scenario simulator, entertaining all our rational and irrational anxiety about a world that can’t really be danger-proofed. Ever almost step off a curb and just barely stop yourself from getting creamed by a passing bus? Final Destination extrapolates that everyday brush with death into canny multiplex thrills — most explicitly in the case of the original’s best jump scare, which has been ripped off constantly in the years since.

Bus Death --Final Destination--

Watching these films, you are reminded of how much potential danger lurks everywhere: on the road, at the mall, in your kitchen. What Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for the ocean, Final Destination does for logging trucks and elevators and escalators and Home Depot and massage parlors and the carnival and the drive-thru and definitely laser eye surgery. In a weird way, the franchise both anticipated and refracted the dread of a post-9/11 America suddenly grappling with its vulnerability; that the original, which hit theaters in March 2000, begins with a plane exploding in midair is an unhappy accident of unexpected national resonance.

Most horror movies are, deep down in their gnarled hearts, about a fear of death. These ones just makes that entirely literal: What you’re watching is a group of poor schmucks rage futilely against the dying of the light, and pay an outlandishly gruesome price for their vain, very human assumption that they can stop what’s coming to all of us. But don’t mistake that for nihilism. There is a god in the world of Final Destination. He just doesn’t love you.

The Final Destination movies are currently streaming on Max, and are also available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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