Feature by: Teddy Blanks
Posted on: 26 October 2009
There is a long tradition of low budget gore as a teaching tool in industrial safety films. Shake Hands with Danger, produced in the ’70s by Caterpillar Inc. (the construction equipment manufacturer), features workers who are crushed by heavy machinery, lose limbs, or tumble to their deaths after ignoring clear warning labels and taking risky shortcuts. A Johnny Cash-ish recurring theme song drives home the point by recounting each cautionary tale in catchy rhyme. The 1988 video Will You Be Here Tomorrow?, a decidedly more bloody affair that simulates factory workers being electrocuted, flattened and impaled, made its rounds on the internet earlier this year and spawned various YouTube edits and remixes. Intended for workers as stern reminders to follow precautions and be more aware of their surroundings, these short films are now archived and appreciated for their cheap special effects and unintentional humor.
The Final Destination series of teen horror movies, all four of which were released this decade, often feel like elongated and more expensive versions of these crude safety videos. Death, or Fate, or whomever it is that is supposed to be going after the Final Destination characters, uses every-day objects and environments as its weapons, and seems to be gleefully doling out incredibly complicated punishment for the sin of not putting safety first. If Ms. Lewton, the high school teacher from the first installment of the series, hadn’t poured ice cold vodka into a coffee mug still hot from the boiling water she had just thrown out of it, the mug wouldn’t have cracked. And if she was paying attention at all, she wouldn’t have momentarily held the leaky mug over her computer monitor, causing it to short out and then explode, hurling a shard of glass into her neck that would incapacitate her as her house burned down. Similarly one supposes that if Ashlyn and Ashley, the airheads from Final Destination 3, hadn’t left a not-totally-empty slurpee cup on top of the machine that controlled the electricity going to their tanning beds, the condensation from the melting slurpee would not have dripped onto that machine, causing it to malfunction, its number reading far above the maximum voltage indicated on the warning label. And if they had noticed the shelf containing the Hits of the ’70s CDs they chose to listen to while tanning wasn’t properly connected to the wall, they could have said something to the salon owner, preventing the shelf from falling and trapping them inside their too-hot tanning beds as they roasted to death.
I realize that according to the movies’ premise, Ms. Lewton, Ashlyn and Ashley would have met their fate anyway, even if they were doing everything by the book, taking each imaginable precaution. But Death does seem to enjoy honing in on its victims particularly during the moments they are most careless.
All Final Destinations begin with a teenager foreseeing a deadly accident: In the first, it’s a mysteriously exploding airplane; in Final Destination 2 it’s a massive highway pile-up; and in 3 it’s a set of runaway roller coaster cars. The fourth chapter, shown in 3D and simply titled The Final Destination, opens with a Nascar crash gone awry that kills half the stadium. In each scenario, the newly psychic protagonist is able to return to the moment before the accident and save the lives of about a dozen friends and strangers. The fun part is that because the survivors weren’t meant to be survivors, and because Death doesn’t like his/her/its plan being messed with, he/she/it will track down and kill every last one of them, in the exact order they were “supposed” to die in the accident. The teenagers will try to cheat Death, but ultimately they will fail.
More than any horror franchise I can think of, the scripts to the Final Destinations hinge on absurdly identical plot points and dialogue. So the only reason to come back to these movies, really, is the chain-reaction, Fischli/Weiss-esque, cleverly conceived and directed death scenes. And the films’ directors know this: each Final Destination movie contains slightly less wit, plot, and coherence, and slightly more innovative and elaborate deaths, than the last.
And the horror in the Final Destination series doesn’t come from the loose concept of Death and its unchangeable master plan; it comes from the unattended loading vehicle in the Home Depot that causes you to be shot 12 times through the head with a nail gun, the wet bathroom floor that results in your being strangled to death by your shower line, or the refrigerator magnet that falls in your chinese food and blows up your microwave and leads eventually to a faulty fire-escape ladder impaling your eye. In short, these movies tell us that it’s not a knife-brandishing killer we should be afraid of, it’s the world around us, the clutter and debris in our vicinity, the apparatus we take for granted.
Like Shake Hands With Danger and Will You Be Here Tomorrow?, the character of Death in the Final Destination movies encourages us to be safe as we work and play, to acknowledge and prepare for the dangers inherent in the devices, appliances and architecture we interact with in our daily lives. In a (probably inadvertent) direct nod to its safety video predecessors, the final scene of the most recent Final Destination has our premonition-prone protagonist Nick O’Bannon stop at a construction site on the way to meeting his fellow survivors for coffee. “Is this thing supposed to be this way?” he asks a hard-hatted worker, pointing to some improperly secured scaffolding. “It pays to be safe,” he says and walks away, confident that the worker will heed his advice. A few minutes later, the scaffolding topples into the street and a Mac truck swerves into the window of the coffee shop, instantly killing Nick and his friends, roll credits.