The Final Destination
**/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras C-
starring Bobby Campo, Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Mykelti Williamson
screenplay by Eric Bess
directed by David R. Ellis
by Alex Jackson It's the summer of 2009. I arrive at the movie theatre, a multiplex twenty miles from home (making it the closest one), to discover that while Rob Zombie's Halloween II has already started, I'm just in time to catch The Final Destination in 3-D. Thinking that I didn't really care which one I saw, that's good enough for me, and so I buy a ticket for the fourth (and, we were led to believe, last) entry in the Final Destination franchise.
I wouldn't end up seeing Halloween II until it hit the dollar theatres later that year. This was November, as I recall. It was at the Valley Fair 9 in Salt Lake's Valley Fair Mall, where my Dad would always take us when we went into the city. The Valley Fair Mall is apparently one of the oldest malls in the country, having opened in 1970. Today, and I'm struggling to find a way to put this delicately, going there is a bit like visiting a third-world country. There's a large Mexican candy store, not unlike the one I encountered years ago when I crossed the border into Chihuahua, and there's something called "Chinese Massage" (I shit you not). The entire place is lit like a factory floor. There's something "off" about the very feel of it. In her user review for the website YELP.COM, "Kelie H." describes it as "truly the 'ghetto mall' of the Salt Lake Valley," and says that it's more like an indoor swap meet than your average suburban galleria.
My expectations for Halloween II were pretty low. It was totally savaged by critics and currently scores a paltry 20% on ROTTEN TOMATOES. Not to mention that I didn't even like Zombie's Halloween remake all that much. So I was delighted to encounter a bona fide masterpiece in Halloween II. As Roger Ebert once said of Quentin Tarantino (by way of Ed Wood), Zombie is too much in love with the filmmaking process to be capable of a boring movie, though he could possibly make a bad one. (His first film, House of 1000 Corpses, and his latest, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, are two obvious examples of this.) Part of the thrill of Halloween II is how Zombie walks that fine line between inspired genius and masturbatory self-indulgence. You can tell that the critics who hated it hated it a lot more than they would have a generic Halloween sequel. There's risk involved with Halloween II. This is the kind of film audiences walk out on en masse.
It was right for me to see this film in a "ghetto mall" at the dollar theatre where I did some of my earliest moviegoing. Horror movies, in particular, have always been comforting to me. One of my fondest memories is watching "Commander USA's Groovy Movies" on cable television as a kid in the late-'80s. I feel this might have made me uniquely susceptible to Halloween II itself. On its most surface level, it's about a young woman coming to terms with her past while trying to overcome the trauma she suffered in the previous film. Zombie's copious use of "retro" iconography and the fact that this is a sequel to a remake of a beloved 1970s classic provokes a peculiarly pungent nostalgic response. Yet the picture is also a disturbingly subjective look at a diminished ego that's forced to overcompensate: Michael Myers is poor white trash and he grew up knowing he's poor white trash; the violence in the film speaks of his need to assert his godliness and intrinsic superiority over those who'd put him down. I'm not sure I would have felt this aspect of the film so strongly had I seen it in a shiny, clean, first-run suburban cineplex, much less one that wasn't tied so closely to my childhood experiences.
But just as Halloween II is best seen at the dollar theatre in a ghetto mall near the end of autumn, The Final Destination is best seen at a first-run theatre in 3-D on a hot summer day. This may very well be the perfect summer movie, if by "summer movie" you mean a novel distraction that won't tax, bore, or overstimulate you while providing a solid hour-and-a-half of quality air-conditioning. I don't much admire this thing, but I have genuine affection for it. Shot in 3-D as opposed to retrofitted to squeeze a few extra bucks out of a gullible public, the film is every bit as a gimmicky as Andre De Toth's House of Wax and embraces the tackiness of the 3-D trend with comparable gusto. There's a naiveté, an innocence, to it. This could have easily been my favourite movie when I was eleven or twelve years old and I almost wish that I had taken my nephews to it. (The film's one sex scene isn't quite significant enough to move me from "cool uncle" into "creepy uncle" territory.) Essentially, it's best appreciated by those still young enough to be intrigued by the prospect of a 3-D Final Destination.
The Final Destination movies got progressively better until peaking with James Wong's Final Destination 3. Not only did that one star the great Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but it's also probably the only entry in the series that's effective as a horror film. The death scenes prey on fears I actually share--rollercoasters and tanning beds--and I dig the use of The Vogues' "Turn Around, Look at Me" to signify Death's looming approach. The lyrics are appropriately intimidating, and the music positions death as a slow, inviting, implicitly erotic sleep state we're all subconsciously driven towards. If we weren't, the picture suggests, nobody would ever ride on rollercoasters or go to scary movies.
Having given us what is likely the consummate Final Destination instalment, it's only natural for the series to take a firm and unambiguous turn into self-parody. The deaths in The Final Destination involve out-of-control car washes and public pool drains with too much suction. Director David R. Ellis and screenwriter Eric Bess (the team behind the somewhat similarly ironic first sequel) are transparently scraping the bottom of the barrel here. The film's climax unfolds at a screening of a 3-D movie (in actuality Renny Harlin's tonally kindred The Long Kiss Goodnight) where the theatre is pre-destined to explode at the precise moment an explosion happens on screen! Ah, wouldn't it be crazy if the theatre we were watching this movie in exploded at the same time the theatre in the movie, which is showing a film where lots of shit is exploding, exploded itself? This is even more meta than the killing of Jada Pinkett at the Stab preview in Scream 2. It's a gag that conclusively demonstrates the filmmakers are smart about being stupid. The Final Destination isn't supposed to be scary; Ellis and Bess are far too witty to make a "real" Final Destination movie that takes this material at least semi-seriously. "Scary" is beneath them. Or, perhaps, it's beneath the audience to which the film is being marketed.
Accordingly, the violence in the picture is scatological in nature. It's not supposed to horrify or disturb you; all it's trying to do is gross you out and make you laugh. The highlight of The Final Destination--indeed, it summarizes the whole aesthetic of the movie--is a shot in which an explosion sends a man reeling into a chain-link fence, slicing him into diamond-shaped CGI-rendered chunks of meat that slide towards us in glorious 3-D. I laughed. I was disgusted. I wished that I were twenty years younger so that I could enjoy it more. By "highlight," I mean that everything else in the film attempts, less effectively, what this shot definitively accomplishes.
For the most part, my issue with The Final Destination isn't so much that it's awful, but that it isn't good enough. Digging up a comment I posted on the FFC Blog, I'm reminded that I not only saw this instead of Halloween II, I saw it instead of Ponyo, Ang Lee's underappreciated Taking Woodstock, and a second viewing of Inglourious Basterds as well. I can't really justify that. And now that the film is on video, it's in competition with a virtual galaxy of alternative viewing choices. I mean, yeah, it's kinda cute, but why should you bother?
I do, however, take offense to the film's frivolousness in two key areas. For starters, in the first few Final Destinations, the victims were high-school kids. In this one, the main character (Bobby Campo) lives with his girlfriend (Shantel VanSanten) in an expensive-looking studio apartment, but he seems to be in his early twenties at the latest. What exactly do these people do for a living? We never find out and it appears we're intended to take their comfortable lifestyle for granted. Maybe I'm getting old. I'm beginning to identify with that Bill Gates "11 Rules for Life" chain e-mail that tells teenagers they won't earn $60,000 a year right out of high school and in real life you're going to have to leave the coffee shop and get a job. There's a line between escapist fantasy and alienating the mass audience, and The Final Destination somehow crosses it.
Second, I found the film's sardonically (as I read it) paternalistic attitude towards race to be exceptionally grating. One of Death's earliest victims is a beer-drinking racist (Justin Welborn)--and that's how he's billed: "Carter Daniels - Racist"--who calls a black security guard "nigger" and hums "I Wish I Was in Dixie" as the guard does his rounds. The racist dies after an attempted cross-burning on the security guard's lawn goes horribly awry. (Not making this up.) Another character buys herself extra time by giving change to a black homeless man. The security guard (Mykelti "Bubba Gump" Williamson) attempts to kill himself later in the film, though Death won't let him. A shot where he talks to our heroes while absentmindedly wearing a noose around his neck got the biggest laugh from my audience, but I'm not entirely sure what it means. Is it nothing more complex than a subversion of the slasher-movie trope of The Brother Always Dies First?
There's truth to the notion that simply casting an African-American actor in the lead role of one of these movies does more to combat racism than placing blacks on the periphery as helpless victims. But that would presume that Ellis and Bess were attempting to combat racism with The Final Destination or were, in fact, saying anything with their film. If well-meaning liberal piety is often embarrassing to endure, satirizing well-meaning liberal piety strikes me as the worst kind of hipster nihilism. By bringing race into the mix, the frivolousness of The Final Destination becomes an anti-ethical worldview. It underlines the hoariest of political engagements to show us how stupid it is to be politically engaged.
The filmmakers are implicitly arguing that the best a (horror) movie can do is show chunks of a human body slide through a wire fence in 3-D, and that it's ridiculous of me to have such a deep, personal reaction to Halloween II, much less appreciate it for helping me to better understand Michael Myers. We're all responsible for the things we like and the value systems they celebrate. I understand liking The Final Destination and I sort of like it myself. But it makes me angry to think that anybody would love it. It's not the movies that could potentially turn people into serial killers we should worry about, but the ones with an active interest in retarding meaningful communication and introspection. In a way, a trifling film is much more bothersome than a merely awful one.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
New Line's Warner-distributed Blu-ray release of The Final Destination from 2009 contains the feature in anaglyph 3-D--the packaging includes two pairs of red-and-blue glasses--and 2-D versions, each presented in 1080p at 2.40:1 on the same side of a dual-layered platter. (Note that Warner recently reissued this title on the 3D Blu-ray format proper.) In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't make it past the opening car-crash sequence in 3-D. The effect rarely works as intended and I found the image to double up constantly; I'm unsure if the problem was with me or the tech. The 2-D transfer is superior in every respect. Although it looks a little digitized and shadow detail occasionally suffers from black crush, colours (blood reds and blue summer skies) are so vibrant as to lend the film a fitting pop-art flavour. The accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio shines during the big set-pieces, exhibiting deep bass and sophisticated panning effects without overwhelming dialogue. It's worth playing loud.
Supplementary material runs less than an hour in toto. "Body Count: The Deaths of The Final Destination" (22 mins., HD) breaks down the staging of seven of the eleven major deaths. A few trends emerge. Members of the supporting cast (including veteran B-movie actress Krista Allen as a "MILF" who's crushed with a car engine) comment on how creepy it is to see their own lifeless bodies. We learn that many of the special effects were done the old-fashioned way, with dummies and blood bags. I gained a special appreciation for actor Nick Zano, who plays the meatbag disembowelled by a public pool drain. He had to be tied down at the bottom of the pool for the shot, and though he obviously had ready access to oxygen, Zano couldn't help but instinctively panic once he realized he couldn't move. The sacrifices we make for art!
"The Final Destination: Racecar Crash" (5 mins., HD) and "The Final Destination: Mall Explosion" (6 mins., HD) show the evolution of these titular sequences from storyboard to pre-viz animatics to post-production. This is nuts-and-bolts, rudimentary stuff exploring the mechanics of big-budget filmmaking, but interesting enough to not wear out its welcome. Seven minutes of "deleted scenes" consist more or less of bits and pieces trimmed for length, although they do reveal what exactly the protagonists do for money. (He's a day trader and she's an architect, evidently.) Two alternate endings (3 mins., HD) wouldn't have altered the film in any significant way. I couldn't locate the advertised "sneak peak" at the new A Nightmare on Elm Street--the disc I was sent for review is Canadian and I've since learned that this trailer is only available on the one that came out in the United States. So you Canucks are out of luck! A Digital Copy of The Final Destination resides on a bonus DVD inside the keepcase. Originally published: August 9, 2011.