It isn’t pleasure, I don’t think, that drives audiences to the cinema if what they’re there to see are any of the Final Destination movies. Because it seems very clear to me that these movies are not, as they claim to be, about escaping death, but about being dead, and the perils of coming to life. If the success, or at least the appeal (to say nothing of the quality) of a franchise can be measured by its sum instalments, then Final Destination ranks comfortably with Scream, but shrinks before the multiplying might of its endlessly respawning rivals (for comparison: the tenth Hellraiser movie came out in 2018). With few exceptions, something they all have in common is a concern for teenagers who are, understandably, concerned mostly about themselves, their friends and their collective survival as teenagers. The ‘Doomed Teenager Movie’, to borrow Roger Ebert’s loving phrase for the genre, received a vivifying shock with Final Destination where, instead of a masked lunatic skulking around the neighbourhood, the villain is pure vapour, a pall, bad feelings, lust, wrong turns, a stray lightning bolt; a creeping kind of killing vibe that operates best on dormant minds and works even harder on those alert to its presence. Each instalment is led by a character with incredible powers of foresight. Previously partial, their sight is now undimmed, discovering as it sweeps the horizon threat and terror where there was no such thing before: an aeroplane combusts into a screaming fireball; a motorway transforms into a monstrous fusion of metal and sizzling flesh; roller coasters, race-cars, vehicles — it doesn’t matter the kind, of relentless forward motion, convulse and turn against their passengers. Together they evoke an acute horror of progression, as if the mere thought of graduating to the dismal adult world, the world of drudgery and work, is terrifying enough to make anyone brake hard and fumble madly for reverse. Even with box office numbers on a slow decline, the returns on each instalment remain eye-watering, and HBO has a reboot in the works, set for release next year.
So what variety of pleasure, what thrills of immeasurable wattage continues to fasten viewers to their seats, if not the kind derived from the emboldening spectacle of young people unbuckling their seatbelts, as it were, from certain doom, and deciding to live not for work, not even very well or for very long — but brutally and painfully and hopelessly for each other? ‘People are always most alive just before they die, don’t you think?’ says William Bludworth, the franchise’s perpetual mortician, played with slick reptilian menace by Tony Todd (the one and only "Candyman"). His advice ends there, but the films have a way of talking and instructing all their own. Cracks in the concrete and groaning metal, ominous wind and leaking pipes take on the clamour of a Greek chorus to which the characters on stage are largely deaf, but not at all impervious. Disquiet yields its strange rewards to those who yield to it. In Final Destination 3, while waiting in line with her classmates for a roller coaster ride called Devil’s Bit, Wendy (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), baby-faced and newly plagued with an unshakeable bad vibe, jumps at the clang of the turnstiles, inspiring one of the franchise’s best lines. ‘It’s elemental physics,’ says an impatient goth behind her, who then elaborates, a little gloomily, as if she’s quoting Poe, ‘A conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy.’ It immediately put me in mind of another portentous queue from a much older film — the 70s folk horror Penda’s Fen. Stephen, the young protagonist, has a dream in which young girls, lying sprawled on a bright patch of grass, gaze up at a man positioned before a tree stump. He beckons, and one of the girls is led up to him by an adult. She holds her hands steadily on the stump, which is splattered with freshly spilled blood. The man raises a meat cleaver above his head, then brings it down once — twice — in quick, merry, efficient chops. The mutilated girl strolls away smiling, while others eagerly rise from their blankets. A man and woman advance toward Stephen, grimacing, triumphant, utterly deranged, urging him to get in line. It occurred to me that Stephen’s dream is not unlike each of the five Final Destination premonitions which, in their own loud and circumvolutionary way, alert us first to the queue we’re waiting in and then to the man with the cleaver at the end.
I won’t belabour the multivalent resonance such infernal ‘conversions’ might have with audiences whose ‘potential energy’ is daily devoured by machines before they’ve even rolled out of bed in the morning, but I will point out that the deaths in this instalment (two girls get burnt to black sticks in malfunctioning tanning beds; and at her job in a warehouse, our beloved goth’s head is pumped full of needle-length nails) are particularly horrifying because of their abject nature, revolting conversions of young bodies full of promise into shuddering, inhuman machines; into what Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror called ‘a “something” that I do not recognise as a thing.’ Like the howling, splintered face of the last promotional poster, the movies are incapable of portraying ‘growing up’ as anything but a violent flying apart, a spectacle of incomprehensible pain, vomitous events that engulf, then re-produce the world in dark, screeching, fast-approaching, unfamiliar shapes. It is to the films’ credit, then, that shelter, if not something like salvation, can be found in something as simple as the active search for it. Recognition takes on retaliatory force against alienated gloom, as characters find themselves lifted from the jaws of death by the simple compulsion of their feelings; simply by having feelings, it seems, is enough to eject anyone out of automated progression and into the directionless present. ‘I didn’t see what you saw,’ Clear (Ali Larter) tells Alex (Devon Sawa), referring to when she willingly followed him off the plane. ‘I felt it.’ They are easily the most compelling characters in the whole franchise, bonded by a sharp loneliness that goes unobserved by their peers and a knack for filling dead moments with unexpected humour; at the airport, waiting to board, Clear lowers her book to glower at a couple kissing loudly across from her, then resumes reading, with visible pleasure, Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer. Clear Rivers — yes, that’s her full name — seems to recognise something in Alex as she watches him. She watches him with a vehemence that borders on divination; although Devon Sawa’s performance of Alex as someone who habitually haemorrhages their deepest concern is difficult not to watch intently, not to praise as divine. On the plane Alex doesn’t so much wake from his premonition as he is spat abruptly from it, coated in a film of sweat, issuing gibberish from his mouth and shining like a newborn. He is strongest in the film’s somewhat cruel close-ups where his credible, acned face contorts and freezes, directing our attention to his swivelling eyes.
I can think of no other actor as in control of the direction and velocity of their gaze as Devon Sawa, who moves speedily, as with gear-shifts, from headlong desperate searching to halting retreat, from somewhere in the distance to middle-distance, middle, then just back, back back back. Among the group of fugitive teens are Carter, played by the devastatingly handsome Kerr Smith of Dawson’s Creek and Billy, the affable jock played by Sean William Scott of the American Pie movies. Their casting in particular seems a deliberate move to further unsettle the audience, alienating us from faces we’re supposed to recognise. Sean, all ‘Hey, man!’ and backward baseball caps and the world’s most beautiful chin, inspires the most pity with his puppy-dog eyes when he scampers up to Alex at a mass funeral and begs to be told he’s not going to die. In an interview, director James Wong admitted that out of all the insane and gruesome deaths they filmed, the studio demanded the death of a dog be cut from the final release, but if you ask me, decapitating Sean William Scott at the end of Final Destination is not much different from, say, killing off a pet Labrador, mid-leap, with a frisbee in his mouth. ‘Do you think they’re still up there?’ Alex asks Clear in the film’s most surprising and revealing interaction. He’s talking about the plane crash: if it’s possible it took off and continued smoothly on its course; if it’s possible that things could be different. In his open way of wondering he inspires Clear to share her own vision of an alternative reality, one where her family didn’t fall apart and she wasn’t so alone. Prior to this admission, we have only received intimations of Clear’s desolate home life; at the airport, after everyone else is collected by their adoring parents, Clear is dropped home in the dead of night by two faceless FBI agents. ‘I believe in that somewhere else,’ she tells him, and we can’t really blame her. Reality is only endurable if it is free and unfixed and always somewhere else.