Final Destination: The undiscovered classic that spawned a franchise but remains underappreciated.
I’ve spoken about the original Final Destination before, but I feel like it’s always worth bringing it up again. Especially since this year over on my movie podcast, Cultish, we’re dropping a Halloween Special which is centered entirely around the original Final Destination movie. And it’s important to note here that I am talking pretty much solely about 2000’s Final Destination and not the wider franchise, because… well, the franchise I feel might be the start of the problem.
That’s not to say the franchise is bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. Yes, it’s dumb and silly and way, way, way over the top, but it’s enjoyable, schlocky entertainment of the kind I’ll hold my hands up and admit I love. It also represents, arguably, the only major horror franchises from the last decade that isn’t based on James Wan films, and so I sort of find myself automatically drawn to supporting it because I really wish we had more horror franchises.
So, let me explain. I love the first Final Destination. It was the first of the franchise I saw, and so there is no doubt that that plays into my love of it, but for me, it’s also something slightly more than that. It’s important to remember that in the year 2000 the horror franchise was in a really weird place. In fact, the world was in a really weird place. Pre-9/11 and existing in the longest period of more or less uninterrupted peace, society was a very different beast back then. Horror had become, to most people I’m sure, a never-ending conveyer belt of studio-produced Scream knock-offs, and the tropes and cliches of the genre were, in part due to Scream itself, well known and recognizable.
The question really, in this oddest of times, is how would one take the kill-count fun of the slasher movie and make it interesting again? People in masks running around slicing their victims up with increasingly dumb and absurd gimmicks (this is a knock at Urban Legends but, yes… I love Urban Legends) simply wasn’t cutting it anymore. The sub-genre needed something fresh. It needed something new. It needed something scary.
Here then comes Final Destination. Directed by first-timer James Wong, whose previous credits included writing some of the most well-known episodes of The X-Files, Finale Destination takes that slasher movie set-up of a group of victims stalked by an unknown killer and ups the ante. Here the killer isn’t just some unstoppable man in the mask. In fact, here the killer isn’t even a dream hopping monster. No, in Final Destination the killer is Death, and it doesn’t get scarier than that, folks, because if you do beat death right now, ultimately in the end it’ll get you. There is literally no other way for this to end.
I can remember watching it for the very first time and the concept unsettled me. It crept up on me and I’ve struggled to shake it ever since. Death as a villain, at least as it’s presented in the first Final Destination, is a fucking terrifying idea. This non-corporeal, unstoppable entity that’s only purpose is to kill you and is, and here’s the real kicker, actually doing its job when it does that… it gives me shivers just thinking about it. I mean, when you break it down, Death is just trying to right the world.
The way this is presented in the original film is somewhat at odds with the rest of the series. We get much more of a sense of Death as a presence. The later films in the franchise would move away from this and into the more “fate” heavy approach of Rube Goldberg style complex kills and gross-out moments that, while fun to watch, somewhat undercut the scariness of the idea. But here in 2000s Final Destination Death can be glimpsed as a shadowy figure in reflections. It stalks, and it plots, and it plans. It is sentient, and it will get you.
It’s worth noting as well, I think, that while the rest of the films jump quickly from death scene to death scene, the timeline of the original Final Destination seems to be much longer. The characters spend much more time focused on their own grief and their own experience. Much more emphasis is placed on the pain and the horror of knowing people you knew, people who you called your friends or your family, died. We see characters at funerals, they argue over their losses, they are I pain. As a result, the movie has a far darker and more grief-laden atmosphere than its sequels. There are long periods of time between each death, and the film is less interested in the complex mechanisms of how Death will kill you than it is in the devastating consequences of your death itself.
While the sequels are famous for the extended death scenes, where screws unscrew and various red herrings and misdirections are signposted and played up, in 2000’s Final Destination only one death could be considered complex at all, while the rest are either so quick they’re over before you’ve even realized what’s happened (BUS!) or they’re just sort of simple but slow and difficult to watch (that bathroom scene is genuinely horrible). There’s a lot less fun in the deaths as presented in the first Final Destination. Here Death feels nasty.
I don’t know whether it was the horror of 9/11 (all the sequels were produced post the tragedy), or whether it was the fact that it just kind of looked like another teen-centric studio slasher, or that Scary Movie came out the same year and basically killed the whole sub-genre dead with its spoof of satire ridiculousness – and let’s not forget how fucking massive Scary Movie was at the time – but either way, I’ve always felt like Final Destination got sort of lost.
There’s no denying now that it is a movie overshadowed by its sequels. When most people think of Final Destination they don’t think of a gloomy, unsettling, grief-ridden film with some genuinely horrific moments, they think of a big, bombastic, silly but fun franchise. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. As I said, I enjoy the sequels, but the original is better than that.
The original Final Destination is a film that should have changed the slasher sub-genre. It should have had a bigger impact. The final moments of the film feel like a studio decision, and there is a much darker and more in-keeping with the horror deleted alternate ending, so it’s possible that this sort of undercut the potential the movie had as well. Whatever it is, I think it’s a film that’s desperate for a reappraisal, to be looked at outside of the impact of the franchise that spawned from it, and to be reconsidered as the genuine classic horror that it is.