September 16, 2014

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John Waters wishes he directed Final Destination. At the recently completed John Waters retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, there was a sidebar of films Waters was “Jealous I Didn’t Make”. One of them was Final Destination, the 2000 horror film about five teens who cheat death – for which Death itself wants bloody recompense. It spawned four sequels (the most recent was Final Destination 5, released in 2011), having created the ideal  machinery for the mid-budget franchise. The main character was non-corporeal, with Death’s presence represented as a light breeze or a trickle of water, so there was no worry of escalating salary demands. Then they could replace each iteration of the cast with unknowns, as Death plucked them off one by one in “accidents” of savage everydayness (a slip in the bathtub, a mug springing a leak). In his introduction to the screening (in blessed 35mm), Waters reminisced about his time in Baltimore grindhouses, bonding with the brood of rats that scrambled under his feet while marvelling at the depravity on-screen. He considered Final Destination worthy of that heritage, a resourceful exploitation film with shades of Ingmar Bergman. These are teenagers who are grappling with their morality for ninety-eight minutes, though on the genre level. So instead of playing chess with Death, they try to outsmart it as various pointy things hurtle towards their fleshy areas. Waters repeatedly stated that he was not being ironic, that the film is not camp, but a well-crafted fright film. I agree with the distinguished Mr. Waters.

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The original conception for Final Destination came from Jeffrey Reddick, a budding horror aficionado who sent New Line Cinema a treatment for a Nightmare on Elm Street prequel when he was fourteen years old. In 1997 he wrote a spec script for The X-Files where Scully’s brother has a premonition about his own death, and escapes it. The spec was never submitted to the show, but it got Reddick an agent, and encouragement to turn the idea into a feature. Reddick got the idea while flying home to Kentucky. He read an article about how a mother called her daughter the night before she was to fly home from vacation in Hawaii, warning her not to fly home the next day, that she has a “bad feeling about it.” The daughter postponed her flight, and the one she was originally booked on crashed. Glen Morgan and James Wong were long-time writers and producers on The X-Files, and took on Reddick’s story for their first theatrical project. Morgan would write and produce, and Wong would write and direct.

Their version of Reddick’s story concerned the survivors of a plane crash headed for Paris. A high-school class boarded the plane for their class trip, but Alex (Devon Sawa) began suffering terrible visions of an impending explosion, and demanded to be let off. Six others were hustled off the plane as well in the commotion. There was the Henry Miller-reading, iron-sculpture welding goth Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), Alex’s motor mouthed best friend Tod (Chad Donella), the roided up jock Carter (Kerr Smith), his perky blonde girlfriend Terry (Amanda Detmer), the slackjawed doofus Billy Hitchcock (the Seann William Scott) and one of the teacher advisors Valerie Lewton (Kristin Cloke). They are the lone survivors of the original passengers, but they start dying off in elaborate accidents. Alex begins to suspect that their survival undermined death’s design, and that Death is now trying to wrench things back in place, to restore the proper order. Which means they all have to die.

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As you can tell from the Hitchcock and Val Lewton name drops, Wong, Morgan and Reddick were eager to flaunt their horror knowledge. The two FBI Agents who are investigating the crash (and which seem transposed Mulder and Scullys from the spec script) are named Weine [sic] (Robert Wiene directed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Schreck (the actor who played Nosferatu). There’s also a “Murnau” and a “Dreyer” listed in the credits. It warms a film obsessive’s heart to see all these great artists name-checked in a mainstream movie, but spot-the-reference games only go so far. Luckily the movie is more concerned with logical mechanics of its scenario, and presenting each Rube Goldberg-esque death with blunt clarity. The plane crash itself, highlighted by John Waters as one of his favorites, is built up by an accumulation of ominous detail picked out through Alex’s POV. There is a spot of rust in the entrance doorway, and then he looks down to see a large gap between the ramp and the entry to the plane itself, a baggage truck seen cruising down below. All the connections are slightly off – even the seat tray lock snaps off in his hand. The coming inferno has strong practical effects work making the destruction look truly hellish, the passengers attacked not just by fire but the blunt force of their own suitcases. It’s the largest set-piece in the film, one that probably used up half of the budget.

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The other deaths are less grandiose. The whole series is built on the banal ways in which the human body can expire. Death is vaguely embodied as a liquid that slips up Tod, as he entangles himself in a threaded steel wire that holds up the shower head. There is a distant echo of the Lewton style here, of hiding the menace instead of showing. The line of blood trickling under the door frame in the Lewton-produced, Tourneur-directed The Leopard Man as an analogue in the slowly advancing liquid advancing on the tile floor. In both cases they indicate death – only in Final Destination the end is depicted in explicit mechanical detail instead of poetic abstraction.  In the Final Destination series the tension of the films arise in the how of the deaths, not in the why.  It rids itself of the lugubrious backstories and motivations of traditional slasher films, and cuts to the chase (or the evisceration, or what have you). The series works because of this pared down simplicity, which was almost ruined from the beginning. According to Reddick, New Line wanted to give Death human form at the end of Final Destination, to have that “big bad” to peg a marketing campaign around. But Morgan and Wong defended the concept, and lent the series its exploitation integrity.

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