Monday, April 25, 2016

Review: Final Destination 3 (2006)

Final Destination 3 (2006)

Rated R for strong horror violence/gore, language and some nudity

Score: 4 out of 5

The third film in the Final Destination series is, in my opinion, the peak of the franchise. It's the best of what the series represented: a high-octane bloodbath that wasn't too deep, and mostly stuck to the game plan laid out in the first film, but still kept things fresh with great production values and stylish visuals that make you forget about the plot holes. By bringing back the first film's creative team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, they managed to recapture some of the scares and smarts that the second film seemed to have lost, especially with a great opening scene, while at the same time, the kills don't disappoint. If you're gonna watch one Final Destination film, make it either the original or this one.

The plot here is strictly series formula: somebody has a premonition of a disaster about to happen and manages to save themselves and others from getting killed in it, only for those people to start dying one by one in gory freak accidents in the order they would've died in the disaster. You see, these people were fated to die in that big accident, and now, Death itself is coming back to balance the books. The lucky recipient of this film's premonition is Wendy Christensen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a high school senior and photographer for the school yearbook who's visiting a local amusement park on a class trip. Her premonition of the rollercoaster crashing and killing everybody on board allows her to save herself and some of her friends... but like I said, the Reaper is pissed that these folks managed to slip from its clutches. Now let the bodies hit the floor!

The first thing that stands out is Mary Elizabeth Winstead's performance. She's become one of my personal favorite actresses, and a respectable performer in both the horror genre and, more recently, in independent films, and this was the movie that first brought her to my attention. Her performance is neither as confident as Ali Larter's Clear in the first two films nor the "generic final girl" that A. J. Cook's Kimberly was in the second; instead, her Wendy is a neurotic control freak whose growing realization that she can't stop Death's design slowly drives her from grief into despair. Wendy's arc is probably the most depressing in the series, and it's only the crazy kills and overall air of black comedy surrounding the proceedings that keep this film from getting as dark and soul-crushing as something like It Follows (a movie that, now that I think about it, has quite a bit in common with the Final Destination films, at least as far as its unstoppable killer and overall air of doom is concerned). It's the basic premise of the series taken (almost) to its logical conclusion, turning into a pure sadist show by showing what would realistically happen if you subjected an actual person to this sort of thing. And while Winstead stole the show portraying Wendy's film-length downward spiral, the rest of the cast is also pretty fun to watch, my favorite probably being the guy who played the meatheaded, swaggering jock Lewis who gets what's probably the most hilarious death in the movie. (Looking him up, the dude's name is perfect. Texas Battle? That is awesome.) Another standout was Kris Lemche as Ian, the closest thing the film has to a human villain, a kid who thinks that he's found a way to beat Death's design... by killing somebody who's fated to die after him. What a little bastard, he was. Most of them weren't particularly memorable overall, but they weren't outright forgettable either.

The way the film handled Wendy's arc is indicative of something that's rare to see in a horror franchise: scares that get better in later installments. The foreshadowing of deaths is handled with a subtlety that the first two films lacked; in fact, a major point is made that it's easy to interpret Wendy's photographs containing clues as to the inevitable deaths as meaning just about anything, with what they're pointing to only becoming fully apparent after the fact. The opening crash is foreshadowed by showing us the people on the rollercoaster violating safety procedures as well as the poor maintenance on the ride itself, and while the demonic theming of the "Devil's Flight" is spooky, it's not the main focus. We don't get the on-the-nose "hints" that we had in the first two films, but we get enough to know that something bad is going to happen. Much like in the first film, while you know the kills are coming (it's been baked into the series' DNA by this point), it's hard to see where they're coming from. Sometimes they come right out of nowhere, and sometimes, they come from something that you should've seen in advance. The real tension is back in full form, and when it finally snaps, it does so in a gush of blood containing some of the best special effects in the entire series.

The film doesn't explore the mythology of the series like its predecessor did, instead offering a more straightforward horror story, but by keeping things more tightly focused on that story, it built a lead character that I cared about as well as a palatable sense of dread, helped along by James Wong knowing what he was doing behind the camera. He walks a very fine line between a story that's the darkest the series has seen so far on one hand, and a twisted black comedy tone on the other, in which people getting brutally murdered and a young woman spiraling into depression as a result are handled in a manner befitting the spooky carnival that features in the first ten minutes. The finished product feels like an Insane Clown Posse album with a bit more intelligence to it (key words being a bit, because this is still a teen splatter film we're talking about), in which laughter is the film's preferred means for the viewers to deal with all the horrors on display. The scene where two girls get immolated alive in malfunctioning tanning beds is accompanied by the strains of the Ohio Players' "Love Rollercoaster"; one guy's final act after he gets cut in half is to flip the bird. The tone is probably the film's biggest weakness, occasionally veering a bit too far in the direction of comedy for me to take some moments seriously, especially given the very dark plot. Other parts were also pretty tasteless, particularly the scene where the characters invoke 9/11 as a disaster that was foreshadowed (I know some TV edits of the movie cut that bit entirely). When the tone works, however, it makes the events that much more twisted, succeeding in creating that carnival-like atmosphere that they were going for. At its best, this film was like a really good Halloween Horror Nights maze, delivering the scares and thrills but with a wink and a nod.

The Bottom Line:

Probably in the running with the fifth film for my favorite entry in the series, this makes for a great introduction for those who've never seen a Final Destination film before, combining the real frights of the first film with the over-the-top tone of the second to produce the best of both worlds.

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