Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch — we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
Franchises falter in quality the longer they go on. There’s truth to this notion when looking at the bigger series in horror, but with Final Destination, the consistency is higher than the norm. What helps is there are only five entries so far as opposed to double digits like in Friday the 13th or Halloween. However, among that gruesome party of five is one sequel fans tend to shun; The Final Destination is where everyone agrees Death’s design faltered.
While it would have made more creative sense to have James Wong’s Final Destination 3 be the first 3-D movie in the series, theaters weren’t universally ready at the time. According to Fangoria #285, there were “so few screens [for 3-D] that it made no sense” to spend the extra money. The technology was more commonplace by 2009, so it was the perfect time to bring the Grim Reaper to the third dimension. Director David R. Ellis returned after helming the favorable follow-up to the original; writer Eric Bress was also brought back. Handling the practical effects were Greg Nicotero and Mike McCarty, and Entity FX was in charge of the 3-D visuals.
As per tradition, each movie opens with a seismic and larger-than-life massacre. In the past, audiences have witnessed carnage aboard a plane to Paris, on a bustling highway, and on a nightmarish rollercoaster. Now, Nick O’Bannon (Bobby Campo) is at a race track with his girlfriend and their two friends. This is one place where spectators expect, maybe even desire, something terrible to happen. They get their wish, though, when chaos erupts in the stadium following an accident on the track. Debris makes its way to the grandstand and audience members are picked off one by one. Of course, this is merely an unexplained premonition channeled directly to Nick. He only has minutes to escape with his friends and several others sitting nearby before all hell breaks loose.
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Much like Final Destination 2, the fourth movie is heavy on action and light on characters. When Wong, Glen Morgan and Jeffrey Reddick wrote the original film, they managed to give form to Death without ever showing it on screen; they also had his victims be material and responsive in the face of danger. Alex (Devon Sawa) dealt with the social repercussions of his unexplained heroism every day; audiences could connect to him. Ellis and Bress, however, aren’t as compelled when it comes to tapping into the human elements of their story. They instead lean into the goriness and potential for spectacle. While this worked better than not in their first collaboration, it feels amiss in The Final Destination.
As with the new version of Clear (Ali Larter) from Final Destination 2, the characters in the fourth movie are merely mechanical, impassive, and lacking in depth. They’re out to fight Death, yet why do we care? Bress on his own does little to make Nick and his friends engaging, much less sympathetic. We know nothing about Nick and girlfriend Lori (Shantel VanSanten) beyond the main story. Other recipients of these life-saving visions are usually more tangible and not just character cutouts, but the leads here are unusually flat. Their best friends Janet (Haley Webb) and Hunt (Nick Zano) aren’t much better, but at least they have some grit to them. The Final Destination franchise doesn’t splash in the deep end as far as character development goes; these films run on adrenaline and show the external effects of fear. Even so, what’s the point of seeing these characters live if they’re so lifeless to begin with? The closest we ever get to sympathy may be with the security guard George (Mykelti Williamson) from the race track, who later aids the leads.
Interestingly, the film introduces a cartoony racist (Justin Welborn) whose demise is equally uncomfortable and too on the nose. The bigotry doesn’t stop there as a random veteran who escapes Death unscathed says something quite distasteful to his East-Asian doctor. It’s unclear what Bress thought he was accomplishing here with these two characters; nothing they do or say exactly fights racism. These moments just seem like the verbal equivalent of the franchise’s tendency towards shock value.
If there’s anything the sequel does do well, it’s killing a bunch of people no one cares about. The splatter fare here is a treat for bloodhounds, but admittedly, the visual effects aren’t timeless-looking. The meeting of digital and practical isn’t flawless; it looks chintzy. Ignoring these shortcomings, the death sequences are imaginable and hard to forget. Ellis doesn’t shy away from getting grisly and cruel. The Grim Reaper has developed a total mean streak and upped the game when choosing whose number is up. Viewers are presumably tuning in to see people die in the most horrific manner possible. On top of the prerequisite fake-outs leading to grander disposals, are the spectacular displays of slaughter that almost put the previous two movies’ stunts to shame. Almost.
In terms of mayhem, The Final Destination understands the assignment. The emphasis on 3-D impairs the movie’s writing in regards to characters, though. Wong’s presence is hardly felt in the fourth movie; he mistakenly chose to direct Dragonball Evolution at the time. Had he come back, maybe there would be more substance and nuance to the third sequel. As it is, Ellis and Bress’ teamwork isn’t completely unwatchable so long as you’re watching for the right things.
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