The 90s were a weird time for film, right? I mean, there was all sorts of crazy stuff going on. We had the rise of the indie darlings, filmmakers brought up on genre films, applying their knowledge of movies from watching movies to the movies they themselves then made. We had the excess culture, where money was thrown at everything from a bizarre science-fiction movie about dinosaurs returning to life to over-the-top action movie spoofs starring the biggest movie star in the world, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And then we had the tail end of the slasher boom, revitalised by Scream and then oversaturated by countless other imitators that failed to quite live up to the promise of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s knowingly meta slasher romp.
It’s not an overstatement to say the 90s were a tough time for horror, as the movies became increasingly more glossy and star studded they also became more watered down, more predictable, and the tropes Scream had had so much fun poking fun at quickly gave way to new tropes that were less about scares and more about screaming “hey, look how clever I am”.
There were some gems in amongst the rubble, I’ve always enjoyed Urban Legends, and Williamson’s own take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Robert Rodriguez directed The Faculty, is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but by and large the 90s, at least the final few years of the 90s, aren’t remembered fondly by fans of the horror genre.
And then, in 2000, it all came to a screeching, painfully unfunny halt with the Waynes brothers’ inexplicable parody of a satire (yep) Scary Movie.
If there was ever a movie that killed the genre dead in its tracks, it was this one. Horror will always soldier on, and good horror movies are coming out all the time, but in terms of the studio released, high school kids in peril sub-category, Scary Movie stomped it out and stomped it out good. Which, in my opinion, is a shame, because it had just seen arguably its most interesting release.
I’m sure there are those of you who would thank Scary Movie for putting an end to the endless string of dull, unoriginal and disappointingly tame cycle of movies the late 90s had been churning out, but, honestly, I feel had it not come along and pissed on the fire we could have seen a really interesting evolution that might have seen the entire thing evolve.
While Scary Movie came out in September of 2000, in March of that same year we had seen the most original, interesting and well-made entry the sub-genre had had to offer since Scream breathed new life into it back in 1997. I am, of course, talking about James Wong’s ridiculously underappreciated Final Destination.
Based on a story by co-writer Jeffery Reddick (who actually wrote it as a spec script for The X-Files before a friend of his who worked at New Line convinced him to turn it into a feature), Final Destination tells the story of a group of high school students and a teacher who are, one by one, killed by Death when they all get off of a doomed aeroplane after one of them has a premonition that the plan is going to explode.
It might seem silly to call the movie that spawned a franchise consisting of five successful movies, a comic book series and a collection of novels, but bear with me on this one, okay?
The follow-ups, while perfectly entertaining in their own right, miss what it is that made the original truly scary. And make no mistake, Final Destination is scary. Rather than play like your stereotypical teens in peril slasher, Final Destination takes a far more interesting approach.
Arguably it leans on the tropes seen throughout those movies, but it also removes several of them, or twists them in unique and interesting ways. The “Final Girl” here is actually a boy named Alex, played by Devon Sawa, and while the characters are picked off one by one, they aren’t done so with abruptly gory or increasingly showstopping set-pieces (which is something the sequels would bring with them).
But Final Destination’s real success is in its villain. While it may appear to be a slasher movie on the surface (a group of characters are killed one by one until a showdown at the end), Final Destination is more than that. It’s a creepy, supernaturally lead study of death. What death means, what grief does, and whether or not we are truly free to make out own decisions.
The big bad here isn’t some psycho in a hockey mask, or even a paedophile who can enter your dreams. Here the antagonist is Death itself. An unstoppable force. Something that there is absolutely no escaping from, no matter how hard you try. And this is what gives Final Destination its edge. The villain is always going to win eventually, whether he gets you today, tomorrow, or in thirty years times, its always going to get you in the end.
And the movie has great fun playing with the many different ways that death can suddenly snatch us. Whether it be a complex freak accident, like slipping in the bathroom and getting suffocated by the shower chord, or something as simple as being hit by a bus (and seriously, that bus scene never fails to get a jump from me), any moment we could meet out doom.
And I’ll tell you what, that idea is more terrifying than any number of teens in Ghostface masks ever could be.
The sequels would lean into the complex death scenes, with every one playing out like some sort of bizarre, Rube Goldberg style accident, but the original’s interpretation of death is far more insidious and far more calculating. Its goal isn’t to kill you in a strange and unique way but rather just to kill you, end of. So, a piece of metal on a train track can become a sudden instrument of death in the same way a broken electrical wire can.
Look, I’m not saying that Final Destination is the greatest horror movie ever made, I’m not even saying it’s all that good (although, admittedly I do love it), I’m just saying that at the time of its release it offered up something fresh and original, and it’s a shame we never got to see that playout within the genre before to was cut down by Anna Faris.
Horror is on a roll at the moment, with lots of interesting and original ideas making their way to the big screen, from Hereditary to A Quiet Place to Jordan Peele’s latest offering, Us, so it’s not like Scary Movie’s impact damaged the genre beyond all recognition, but it certainly put an end to that particular run, and that’s a shame, because Final Destination promised something deeper and more interesting to come, and we never had a chance to really explore that since the franchise, and the sub-genre as a whole, spent a lot more time focusing on the absurd elements that it did the scary ones.
Give Final Destination a watch now and you’ll see a film filled with some excellently crafted sequences, some big ideas and some decent deaths. It’s a more sombre affair than people realise, I think, given the direction the franchise took. From the horrifyingly realised plane crash to the sudden deaths and a particularly clever moment when we see the plane explode through the window of the airport, there’s a lot going for it. And, of course, Tony Todd.
I think it’s an overlooked gem, somewhat overshadowed by the films that followed it, and, sadly, somewhat forgotten among the noise of the late 90s horrors and the early 2000s spoofs. A promise of more interesting things to come that never quite delivered, it stands unique within the time period, a genuinely unsettling horror movie that surprises, explores interesting themes and still finds time to entertain.
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