There are very few horror franchises without at least one major misstep. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Child’s Play, and A Nightmare on Elm Street all have one or more entries that are universally disliked. But what impresses me about the Final Destination series is that the output has always been reliably entertaining. Sure, none of the films are perfect. But there isn’t an obvious dud in the bunch. And for a franchise with five films, that’s no small feat. I am even going to go out on a limb and say that Final Destination is one of the most consistently enjoyable modern horror series.
The Final Destination films tap into the universal truth that death is a part of life and that it’s always waiting for us. And there is nothing we can do to change that. The series takes full advantage of the inherent fear associated with that realization and makes everyday objects feel ominous in a palpable way. The films put their characters in situations that would normally seem perfectly mundane. But the realization that death is waiting to get its greedy hands on the film’s key players makes even the mundane seem menacing.
The films frighten and delight in equal measure because anything in the characters’ environment can be used as a death blow. There’s no safe zone. And this notion is fairly unique to Final Destination. Freddy can (usually) only get you in your dreams. Jason is scared of water. And the Leprechaun is essentially powerless without his gold. But Death doesn’t really have a weakness and even if you manage a momentary reprieve, Death will still be waiting to collect when you least expect it. In that regard, Death is almost scarier than a bogeyman or supernatural behemoth that can’t be bested. In the end, we cannot outrun our own mortality.
The first film in the series, Final Destination (helmed by James Wong) hit the ground running by subverting a lot of the slasher tropes that many viewers had grown fatigued with by 2000. Characters don’t die because they make stupid decisions. They die because you can only cheat death for so long. Eventually, it catches up to you. Even the characters that manage to survive the first film are killed off in the sequel.
Speaking of sequels: One could argue that the Final Destination sequels get a bit formulaic. But it’s a formula that works and there’s enough mileage in the concept to support the four films that follow the original. Moreover, I would be hard-pressed to think of many horror sequels that don’t follow a template. Deviating too far from the rules established in the first film rarely goes over well.
David R. Ellis took over the directorial reins for the second outing in the franchise and he does a great job of stepping in to work with an already established storyline in Final Destination 2. The second film carries similarities to its predecessor but Ellis makes it his own by upping the stakes. This is a gorier, flashier film than the first and marks the point where the series really became known for its elaborate death sequences.
Moving the premonition sequence to the open road instead of a confined aircraft cabin allowed for some great creativity with the death scenes and in true sequel form (they are much more violent and intricate this time around).
Another smart move the second installment made was bringing a group of strangers into the mix. The fact that the characters aren’t all from the same high school allows for the sophomore entry to avoid being a rehash of the original.
Like a sequel should, the second installment introduces new rules (like new life disrupting the cycle) and elaborates on the mythology (courtesy of the always engaging Tony Todd) but it doesn’t overdo it. This is a series that never totally explains everything, which is perfect, because the more we know, the less we have to fear.
The franchise’s third installment sees original director James Wong returning to helm. And while it doesn’t necessarily do anything better than the first two it’s an enjoyable outing. Moreover, the home video release kind of blew my mind. The “Change Their Fate” feature allowed viewers to alter the outcome of key scenes in the film like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.
Another great thing about the threequel is that it (arguably) has the campiest deaths in the series. I mean, we see two characters get tanned to death. The third installment differentiates itself from the first two by being the more whimsical and over-the-top; Final Destination 3 eschews the (slightly) more serious tone of its predecessors and the results are often comical.
The other thing I really appreciate about Final Destination 3 is that there isn’t a clear-cut survivor. We see a premonition of all the surviving cast members dying in a subway mishap and when the vision ends, it begins to happen for real. This was a nice departure from the more upbeat endings of the first two series installments.
As for the fourth film, the fact that it is presented in 3-D may makes it a product of its time but I also consider that a badge of honor. After all, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Jaws and many more horror series have enjoyed a 3-D sequel.
The fourth installment may be the weakest in the series but it’s still a good time. While it does rely a little too heavily on themes explored in the first three films, The Final Destination is far from a waste of time. The flick offers up several really imaginative and intricate deaths and the opening credit sequence is a lot of fun to watch in 3-D. More on that in just a moment.
For better or worse, The Final Destination is the most referential film in the series. One noteworthy example is the Clear Rivers Water sign that one of the characters passes by immediately before experiencing a premonition. Another is the 180 references (the flight number from the original film). To the best of my knowledge, The Final Destination has the most 180 mentions of any of the five films (each of the flicks contain at least a couple). And it’s a lot of fun to look out for them.
Another welcome nod comes by way of deaths from the first three series installments being featured during the film’s impressive opening credit sequence.
Depending on whom you ask, Final Destination 5 may hold the distinction of being the best in the franchise. It’s certainly the most critically acclaimed. It’s the only one of the films that isn’t “rotten” on the popular film aggregate rating site Rotten Tomatoes. And, in a lot of ways, I agree with the critics on this one. I love the original and have to give it a massive amount of credit for birthing a modern horror phenomenon. But the series fifth installment feels the most polished and really takes the franchise out on a high note. Not to mention: The bridge collapse scene is one of my favorite VFX effects sequences from any horror film.
The final moments of the fifth flick reveal that it is a prequel to the original. Going back and watching it a second time, there are ample references that clue the viewer in to the possibility that the film may be taking place in the past. But they are well-disguised enough that a lot of viewers may not have picked up on them the first time around. The film brings everything full circle and takes us out on a high note.
A sixth installment has been in pre-production for a bit now. Whether it gets off the ground or not, I can honestly say that the first five exist without a dud in their ranks.