The unifying element of most horror franchises is, of course, a memorable antagonist. Victims will come and go, as lambs to the slaughter, but you cannot have a Friday the 13th without Jason Voorhees, a Nightmare on Elm Street without Freddy Krueger, a Texas Chain Saw Massacre without Leatherface… (There was, of course, a Halloween without Michael Myers—and a very good one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch—but audiences in 1982 were having none of it.) Here, then, is a key distinguishing characteristic of the films of the Final Destination franchise, the very finest American horror series to have appeared in the 21st century: these are movies without an onscreen villain that the dramatis personae/prey can fight back against. Even the films of the much-inferior Saw franchise, begun in 2004, which superficially resemble the Final Destinations in their gory ingenuity, provide “heavies” in the form of Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw Killer and his various apprentices, whereas the antagonist of Final Destination is that phantom endboss who comes for us all, none other than Death himself.
The plot of the first Final Destination film establishes the template that will be followed throughout the series. First, someone has a vivid premonition of an imminent catastrophe that will result in an enormous, extravagantly violent loss of human life. In the original Final Destination (2000), it’s high schooler Alex Browning (Devon Sawa); his presentiment, a vision of the “Volée Airlines” jet that’s about to spirit 40 of his classmates away on a senior trip to Paris exploding shortly after lifting off the runway at JFK; in future installments there will be masterfully handled massive multi-car pile-ups, a roller-coaster mishap, a speedway bust-up, and a bridge collapse. Once the disaster has been depicted, including the death of our protagonist-seer, with ghoulish relish, it’s revealed that what we’ve been watching was in fact a mysterious message from the near future: the plane is still on the runway, disaster can still be averted. The protagonist, panicking, manages to snatch a handful of unwittingly soon-to-die individuals—willing and unwilling friends, enemies, and strangers—out of harm’s way before the envisaged cataclysm actually occurs: in Final Destination, it’s five classmates played by Ali Larter, Seann William Scott, Kerr Smith, Amanda Detmer, and Chad Donella, and one teacher, Kristen Cloke’s Valerie Lewton. Their apparent salvation soon proves to be only a temporary respite, however, as one by one the “survivors” die in freak accidents and, even more freakishly, in the order they were seen to die in our protagonist’s prognostication, which invariably takes in much more than any single fixed point-of-view could hope to. Of the nature of their deaths, more anon.
Final Destination (2000)
By virtue of being the first of the franchise, the James Wong-directed Final Destination has to do a bit of work to establish the rules of the game that, in later installments, is generally cleared up through one of the characters who’ve cheated death doing a cursory internet search: here the job falls to Candyman star Tony Todd, who does a day’s work as the town’s mortician, a character who evidently enjoys some friendly rapport with the angel of death, and can therefore inform Alex and Larter’s Clear Waters that they may yet escape the sword of Damocles hanging over them by avoiding another of the reaper’s snares, leading to their being overpassed, at least temporarily, in his “cycle” of clean-up killing. (This is meant to add an element of uncertainty to the preceding although, as it develops, Death is very punctilious when it comes to crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s.)
Final Destination began its life as a 1994 spec script by Jeffrey Reddick for the Fox TV series The X-Files—a sort of Kolchak: The Night Stalker for kids who grew up on the Time Life: Mysteries of the Unknown books. Reddick’s teleplay, which can be read in its entirety at the redoubtable bloodydisgusting.com, was never submitted and, instead, reworked into a treatment that went to New Line Cinema, where Reddick was the long-time assistant to the co-chairman of worldwide marketing. Hired to spin the treatment into a feature draft, Reddick produced a script titled Flight 180, eventually rounded out by contributions of two X-Files veterans, Glen Morgan and Wong.
It is to be counted a minor miracle that this potent premise was not gelded for presentation on network television, because the raison d’être of the Final Destination films has been to find the most unlikely, inventive, and extreme methods of pulping and pulverizing the human body imaginable. The characters in Final Destination films are born to die, just so many pieces to be removed from the board, in a tradition that leads through Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and the “body count” thrillers that proliferated in the wake of Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and on into the ’80s slasher boom. For the most part, they are granted only as much in the way of distinguishing personality traits as is necessary to differentiate them from one another: in Final Destination, Smith plays a muscle car-driving bonehead delinquent, Detmer his fawning arm candy, and Donella the goofball best friend that insists that he and Browning dump their bowels together at the airport, to minimize the risk of any cute girls scenting their feces during the flight. In this first outing the gang are at least tagged with memorable monikers—like Browning, Lewton, and Scott’s “Billy Hitchcock,” references to classic horror—though this tradition doesn’t continue through the whole of the series: in The Final Destination (2009), for example, there is a racist character, played by Justin Welborn, who is simply listed in the credits as The Racist.
Final Destination (2000)
The fodder for the meat grinder who populate the Final Destinations don’t merely die; they die the deadliest deaths of anyone who has ever died. Watching the kills in the first Final Destination today, after having experienced the building-a-better-deathtrap one-upmanship of its four sequels, one may find that they appear almost quaint. There is nothing in the original film to rival, say, Jim Kirk’s being pancaked by a massive plane of glass in Final Destination 2 (2003), Texas Battle’s jumped-up jock having his cranium pulped by a Nautilus weight machine while bellowing “Fuck death!” in Final Destination 3 (2006), or the shopping mall holocaust explosion in The Final Destination.
With this said, most of the tricks of cinematic prestidigitation that make these films so pleasurable are already on display in the series’ first entry, and employed with a high level of sophistication—if there is any abiding idea in the Final Destination films, it’s that the man-made world is an incredibly complex mechanism, and any spanner in the works of that mechanism, however small, can escort you off this mortal coil without a moment’s warning. The first Rube Goldberg kills that would become the series’ stock in trade appear in the clothesline garroting of Donella and the glorious departure of Ms. Lewton, who goes to her reward following a dogpile of agonies—a shard of computer monitor to the throat, a block of kitchen knives in the sternum, and fiery oblivion—that begins with an innocuous crack in a coffee mug full of vodka. There is also an early and effective instance of the series’ fondness for juke moves, a tradition of ominous misdirecting build-up followed by temporary relief and then a blunt, brutal out-of-left-field punchline. This comes in a sequence that first sets up Smith as the next to go, stuck in the path of an onrushing train in the seat of his Chevy Nova SS, then sees him pulled out of harm’s way in the nick of time, before the set piece concludes with Scott having the top of his head lopped off by a sharp of scrap metal flying guillotined from the caboose. In fact, of the film’s various human sacrifices, only Detmer’s abrupt flattening by a speeding bus has lost something of its magic, this due to its being a victim of its success, the out-of-nowhere auto collision having become something of a cliché since Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh took a T-boning in No Country for Old Men (2007).
Final Destination 2 (2002)
The capper of one of the monologues from Joel and Ethan Coen’s film, spoken by old-timer Barry Corbin, might equally well be applied to the fatalism of the Final Destinations: “You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.” This is something like the lesson that the Final Destination films impart, time and again; unlike the “tests” of the Saw series, which reflect a moral judgement being issued from on high and offer a possibility of stay of execution, there is no ethic behind Death’s design: whether you’re The Racist or Clear Rivers, when your time is up, all alike shall be returned to dust. In lieu of a Krueger, Voorhees, or Myers to grace publicity materials—or, if we are being honest, much in the way of star power—the Final Destinations have resorted to employing some variant of ominous skull imagery in their poster art, as in the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th century, reminders of the inevitable transience of life.
There is ample evidence that many today do not care to contemplate such grim matters—billionaires investing in biotech companies created to grant the superrich immortality through cellular rejuvenation and blood transfusions, a massive wellness industry premised on the promise of staving off the final, fateful scythe. I can only note that I was a senior in high school when Final Destination was being shot in various locations in Canada and the United States, and that the world of teenagers that it depicts—of voluminous horizontally striped Aéropostale pullovers, men’s fringes swooped up with hair gel, and school bullies who blast Nine Inch Nails—seems now incredibly distant from the vantage of middle age, and that I might as well start preparing for the unavoidable.
If we hope to learn anything about Death from the Final Destination films, it may occur to us to ask why he goes to so much trouble in engineering the fatalities that he metes out to those who have momentarily evaded his grasp and why, being Death after all, he doesn’t just use one of his more quotidian but proven-effective techniques for ushering the living into the great beyond: a heart attack, a burst blood vessel in the brain, a catfish bone in the throat? Putting aside the obvious cinematic mandates of suspense and spectacle, we must conclude from the baroque and bizarre tactics Death makes use of that he isn’t just going about his business, ticking off souls like items on a grocery list, but that he is a bit of a showboat, in fact is actually enjoying himself. There is something to be learned from this relish in simple pleasures; after all, the end is coming sooner than you think.
Nick Pinkerton is a Cincinnati-born, Brooklyn-based writer focused on moving image-based art; his writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Artforum, Frieze, Reverse Shot, The Guardian, 4Columns, The Baffler, Rhizome, Harper’s, and the Village Voice. He is the editor of Bombast magazine, editor-at-large of Metrograph Journal, and maintains a Substack, Employee Picks. Publications include monographs on Mondo movies (True/False) and the films of Ruth Beckermann (Austrian Film Museum), a book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Fireflies Press), and a forthcoming critical biography of Jean Eustache (The Film Desk). The Sweet East, a film from his original screenplay directed by Sean Price Williams, will premiere in the Quinzaine des Cinéastes section of the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
Final Destination (2000)