Death comes in threes

The road not taken, in which Wendy honked againIt’s a little weird that I’ve been so engrossed in the Final Destination movies lately. I’m not a big fan of horror movies in general, because I don’t usually have the constitution for them. And the movies, frankly, just aren’t that good.

I was initially interested by the TV tie-ins. Ali Larter from “Heroes” is in the first two movies; and two elements of the series: the hit-by-a-bus scene from the first, and the overall concept that once you’re marked for death, you can’t escape, are being “borrowed” by “Lost.”

More than that, I’m just fascinated by how the whole thing works as a franchise. It’s easy to have a dismal view of Commercial Entertainment Product, and the typical laments about art versus product, insipid marketing tie-ins and focus-testing and sequels, and how Hollywood (and big business in general) ruins everything. The Final Destination movies leave me feeling kind of optimistic — I’d point to the third movie as proof that there’s still plenty of room for art and talent in the process.

I’m obliged to point out that warm, fuzzy, pro-Corporate Media Congolmerate feelings aside, Final Destination 3 is not a great movie; in fact, it teeters precariously on the precipice of “good enough”. I don’t want to get carried away here; we’re still definitely in “it’s better to aim low and hit than aim high and miss” territory.

But it takes the basic template of Final Destination 2, a truly awful movie, and shows what’s possible when you put some talent behind it. It’s got the big action sequence at the beginning, a callback to explain the plot of the first movie, then a series of increasingly complicated death sequences interspersed with scenes of your tedious and unlikeable heroes trying to figure out how to save themselves. I’m impressed that the filmmakers didn’t just completely ignore the second movie, but recognized what worked in it and took only the parts they needed — the basic formula (less “X-Files” episode, more teen horror blockbuster), and the increased gore level the kids go crazy for.

The trick, of course, is that unlike the second movie, they took the formula and did it right. The cinematography is way better than a movie like this needs to be. The opening sequence is genuinely creepy. I’ve read some reviews complaining about the CGI in the roller coaster sequence, but I thought it worked well; everything looked hyper-real and unsettling. And throughout the movie, there are interesting shots and set-ups that just have the feel of a bunch of people who know what they’re doing.

Of course, the roller coaster sequence is completely ludicrous — they actually have one of the characters go on about how a coaster is nothing but physics in action, and then still show the coaster stopping at the top of a loop (like in Chris Elliot’s “Get a Life” series). But whether intentional or not, it’s goofy, and funny, and sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The events are ridiculous; the non-action scenes are talky, plodding, and pretty dull; and the characters are tedious and unrelatable.

Which all works, because the movie’s all about the suspense, and again, with the pacing and editing, there are signs all over that the filmmakers know what they’re doing. The characters exist only to get killed, so they’re just relatable enough to distinguish them from a crowd scene. The talking scenes are slow and dull on purpose, to give the audience enough time to calm down after the last death scene. And the ridiculous nature of the deaths keeps you on edge, because although you know that someone’s going to die, you spend agonizing minutes watching, trying to figure out exactly how it’s going to happen.

The sequence in the hardware store, in particular, sets the “murder weapon” up in the very first shot. And then shows you about ten minutes of red herrings, tedious plot development, and fake-outs while you wait for the end to come. That’s how suspense scenes should be done. And again, the way they filmed this scene, and in fact every other scene in the movie, repeats the idea that every single thing around you is dangerous and potentially lethal.

My biggest problem with the first movie, after listening to the commentary, was the frustration that the filmmakers seemed so close to understanding what their movie was about, and then dropped the ball trying to turn it into something it wasn’t. Final Destination 3 addresses all of that; it feels as if everybody involved is on the same page.

In the first movie, the commentary points out that they used “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver for death scenes, to show a contrast between what you hear and what you’re seeing. Get it? That’s irony! The third movie uses basically the same gimmick, but does it 1000 times more effectively and less clumsily. “Love Rollercoaster” plays during the first death; a little obvious, but still a great choice. Even better is the recurring theme, “Turn Around, Look at Me” by the Lettermen. (The version linked is by The Vogues, which is less creepy than the earlier one, but still the same idea). It suddenly starts playing on the radio whenever Death approaches, and it’s a perfect choice.

And in keeping with the “Hooray for Corporate Entertainment!” theme of this post, there’s the “Choose Their Fate” feature of the DVD release. Before the death scenes, you’re given a choice as to what the characters will do, and then can see how it plays out in the movie. I’ll go ahead and ruin the surprise: it doesn’t make a bit of difference. You get a few extra seconds of footage in a slightly altered scene, and can only really “save” one victim. (The DVD even makes a joke to that effect, asking you, “Was he worth saving?”)

So it’s yet another sign of crass marketing ruining the artistic process, right? I say no! It’s a perfect example of how to exploit the system. According to the extra features and commentary on the first movie, it was plagued by focus-testing, alternate scenes, and the need to re-shoot the entire ending. By the third, they took advantage of the DVD feature to try out all their alternates. For example, the option at the end of the movie changes nothing, but lets you see the original, dull ending, before preview audiences demanded a new ending.

Another case just shows two versions of the exact same death (inside a football workout room), but edited and paced differently; a shorter version was requested by the studio to mimic the hit-by-a-bus scene in the first movie, but the longer, superior version made it into the final movie. The marketing types get a bullet point for the DVD case and the PR surrounding the movie; the filmmakers get to try alternate takes and save the best stuff for the theatrical release. Everybody’s a winner.

So whether or not it’s a Modern Day Classic of Cinema (hint: it’s not), I’m still impressed by it. In videogames, TV, movies, and every commercial entertainment medium, we hear over and over again about how big corporations ruin everything, marketing/publishing/the studio is The Enemy, and art can’t survive under the pressing weight of cold, soulless commerce. Final Destination 2 still sucks all kinds of ways, don’t get me wrong. But the third one shows what can happen when you take a less antagonistic attitude towards the business end — talent can still shine through, and you can end up with something that might not be art, but is a hell of a lot of fun.