Sunday, August 30, 2009

THIS Is How You Make a Franchise

Next to the adventures of one Mr. Charles Lee Ray, Final Destination may very well be my favorite horror franchise of all time. Part of it is a personal connection, as unlike the mixed but marvelous Elm Street series, I’ve seen each of Death’s installments on the big screen with low expectations. The first and probably ‘scariest’ entry opened with the best plane crash since Alive (despite being in poor taste by using the same name and setup as the ill-fated TWA Flight 180, but hey, go Long Island-set horror!). Part 2 featured one of the greatest car accident scenes ever put on film, and the roller coaster gone amok opening of Part 3 has made many a carnival goer stick to the bumper cars. More importantly, each film knows what its audience wants--creative deaths, macabre humor--and delivers it with drunkenly giddy spirit.

The Final Destination--which I pray to the Grim Reaper is just an excuse to not smack a 4 on the title--is the movie you expect, and in a rare instance, that’s a most fantastic thing. Let’s face it: every Friday the 13th, save for Parts IX and X, followed an identical formula right down to the kill styles...much like all four of the Final Destinations. And yet, compare the by-the-numbers energy of filmmaking in any Jason round with the kinetic movement of Final Destination and you get a perfect example of what makes a good and lasting film franchise.

Quick Plot: A quartet of well-spoken young pretty people attend a NASCAR race, along with an array of rednecks whose accents somehow exist in the same town. Clean cut Nick is hit by a gentle brush of wind--never a good sign in a horror movie--followed by a nightmarish vision of a racing accident that spews through the so-secure fence and into the crowd, sending sharp things into bellies, debris on top of heads, and panicky families stomping over each other to reach the exit.

Anyone whose seen one of the other joyfully twisted Final Destination films knows that little Nicky will snap out of his CGI’d dream in time to save his friends and a few stereotypical bystanders (one is actually credited as Cowboy; another, played by The Signal’s not Simon Peggish Justin Welborn, is listed as Racist). What follows, of course, is the unseen Grim Reaper grouchily working overtime to knock off the wrongfully surviving characters in increasingly wacky ways.

The trailer gives away a few situational deaths, but director David R. Ellis (he who helmed the enjoyable first sequel) really does provide an engaging show that still packs a few surprises. Nods to the earlier films are littered throughout with care, from the opening credits sequence to the Clear Rivers Car Wash. The cast is serviceable, and while none are worthy of Oscars or People’s Choice Awards, the core creates sympathetic characters that we can mildly care about.

High Points (aside from the entire 80 minutes)
There’s a nice seize the day moment late in the film that helps to make us actually care about the final scenes of suspense

A late plot element featuring a second large-scale disaster is a nice way to shake up the formula we’ve come to rely on in past films

Some of the choices for vicious machinery felt especially inspired in a I’ve-always-been-slightly-afraid-of kind of ways. Escalators, car washes, and pool drains are certainly ripe with potential. Should there be a 5th trip, I’m crossing my fingers for a revolving door kill.

Low Points
Aside from the fantastic opening, the 3D is never really utilized in an innovative or even fun My Bloody Valentine-ish way

Lessons Learned
In a pinch, tampons make effective--and adorable--ear plugs

European travel guides are big on highlighting local attractions with artistic zombie hand photographs

Babbling is not encouraged when crossing a busy street

Binoculars are an excellent tool for smuggling alcohol into dry events

Velcro really is the best invention of the 20th century

See/Skip/Sneak In
Despite the disturbingly cheerful 9-year-old sitting two seats away from me, I had a blast with this film. It’s too early to call it the best in the fairly young franchise, but any movie that keeps a sick smile on my face for 80 minutes is definitely worthy of a full price ticket. My one complaint is that the 3D is hardly overwhelming, so those living in 3Dless towns can still enjoy the film without shelling out $4 for disposable glasses and flying object imagery. Best enjoyed with popcorn and a sense of humor.

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