'Final Destination 5': Death's A Great Punchline (That Needs A Better Setup)

‘Final Destination 5’: Death’s A Great Punchline (That Needs A Better Setup)

We don’t do much with death in media. While pop culture is packed with anal sex jokes and headlines likening the Dow to a high-class hooker, the actual mechanics of death are one of the few things we bypass. Call it the last taboo.

Movies wade through death in a variety of ways. Typically, there’s buildup to a tragedy, with a focus on the pain of loss and the hardship left in its wake. Death is used alternately as character forger or plot device (is the hero really dead?? He CAN’T be!!). But horror films enjoy a singular relationship with death. Horror alone has our permission to roam the Stygian shore and frolic in all the coarse, grubby ways the human body can cease functioning. Morbid and profane, you say? Well, if we can chat about anal sex over breakfast, why not death? Both happen on a daily basis. And no series delights in death more than the Final Destination franchise.

There is literally NOTHING to these movies other than the rampant celebration of Demise (and the young hotties sacrificed to it). Death isn’t merely the villain in these films: It’s the protagonist, the minor characters, the subplot and the leitmotif subject. Not even the Saw series gives death such star treatment. Saw and its spawn are focused on pain and agony, rather than what follows after; the torture scenes in those movies are so impossibly gruesome that death comes as a denouement. But in the Final Destination movies, death is the means, the end and everything in between. The only point is to watch people get knocked off in kitchens, or planes, or escalators, or SUVs, or dentist offices — you get the drift. The key is to recognize that it’s all an inside joke, the punchline of which is that you don’t need a psychopath in a mask to deliver death to your door, all you need are a few mundane objects and your own mortal stupidity.

Alas, a good joke can be spoiled by a tired setup. Which is what has happened to FD — it’s a prisoner of its own formula. Group of hot young things cheat a violent public death due to someone’s accident-premonition (the opening sequences of these films are always spectacular, and the major bridge collapse that starts off Final Destination 5 is hardly a stretch of the imagination these days). Then the survivors get systematically picked off in Rube Goldberg-meets-Dario-Argento sequences that utilize everything from swimming pool filters to laundry lines. Cultural fears are reflected (death by acupuncture! All that loony Eastern medicine could KILL you!), and various statements are made about the fragility of life and the emptiness of middle-class consumption (getting Lasik? Going tanning? Prepare to meet thy doom). Toss in Tony Todd for a little exposition about how “you can’t cheat death blah blah.” (You put Tony Todd in your movie for one purpose: to show your predominantly white audience the scariest black man alive.)

The problem here isn’t the accident sequences — they remain the raison d’etre of these films. No, the issue is the premise. It was silly in the first movie, and now its omnipresence bogs the sequels down like piñatas in a septic tank. The producers need to ditch the “cheating death” formula. It’s not necessary. Just present the characters, and have them start dying. If you want to add a little social relevance/Saw-style sermonizing , have them act like douchebags until the universe conspires to take them out in creative ways. Abandon the increasingly peripatetic dialogue and lame attempts at character development, and accept that the sole purpose of these people is to perish in a cacophony of blood and irony. As for FDfans, we get a bad rap for being shallow gore-junkies. Which isn’t entirely true (ok, it’s a little true). But we’re into more than just satisfying our gruesome death-lust. We want to see death not taken so seriously. We want to laugh at it, even a little. And yes, we want suspense to precede the gory thrill. We’re human beings; we may as well embrace that not everything about us is lily-coated dulcitude. We flail, we bleed and, eventually, we die. Turning inevitability into a joke climax renders the event itself less scary. That is, if we could ever really convince ourselves that our own deaths were anything but terrifying.

NOTE: We’re unveiling a new ratings system! Behold the drippy chainsaws! Out of five chainsaws, FD5 gets two.

Melissa Lafsky, The Awl’s Horror Chick, wants to be scared by your movie.