Final Destination: Death’s Design 20 Years Later

Franchises are a staple of the horror genre. From the beginnings of horror cinema, Universal had their ‘Monsters’ and Hammer Films’ pumped out their Frankenstein and Dracula sequels for over a decade. During the ‘Golden Era’ of slashers in the 1980’s, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels ruled. But by the late 1990’s, the steam had all but run out of these series. Even Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy was wrapped up by early 2000. And the Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises were still a few years of in the horizon. Enter The X-Files alum, James Wong and Glen Morgan, with their supernatural slasher concept, Final Destination. With its young cast and novel twist on an old premise, Final Destination surprised at the box office. Four sequels followed over the next decade with news of a possible sixth movie recently surfacing. In the 20 years since its release, Final Destination is of one of the most financially successful horror franchises of all time.

Final Destination Made Death Scenes an Art Form Again

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Giallo directors, like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, took gore to previously unseen levels. Make-up artist Tom Savini’s work defined the slasher subgenre’s elaborate death scenes. In spite of its supernatural twist, Final Destination was, at its core, a slasher movie. Once Wes Craven’s Scream blew up the ‘slasher’ rules, Wong and Morgan were free to play with the premise. And the use of ‘death’ as the antagonist allowed for a renewed sense of creativity. Though critics were underwhelmed, there’s no denying Final Destination was a wildly fun, suspenseful roller coaster ride. What distinguished It from Friday the 13th and other slashers was the sheer elaborate nature of the movie’s death along with a healthy dose of ironic humour.

In spite of its supernatural twist, Final Destination was, at its core, a slasher movie.

With a simple rule in ‘Death’s Design’’, Wong and Morgan squeezed out maximum suspense by manipulating the everyday things that surround us. Arguably, Mrs Lewton’s kitchen death scene is Final Destination’s highlight. In fact, it remains one of the best of the franchise. It’s a lengthy scene filled with red herrings as Mrs Lewton herself arranges all the elements of her own death. What follows are a series of ironic coincidences leading to a cruel death all to the sounds of John Denver. This would serve as the the franchise template – methodical set-up, misdirection, and morbid humour. Though Terry’s death contrasts the franchise’s template, her bus death scene deliver an absolutely shocking jolt while still embodying the movie’s ironic humour.

The First Horror Franchise of the 2000’s

Final Destination’s surprise box office success all but guaranteed a sequel. And Wong and Morgan’s movie had the perfect template for a franchise. Intellectual property and brand familiarity are keys to Hollywood movie success. By and large, horror sequels have worked by taking the first movie and repeating the basic story with ‘bigger’ and ‘more’ deaths. While Tobe Hooper’s belated Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel is an underrated creative departure, audiences initially rejected it. In contrast, Friday the 13th Part II never deviates far from the original movie, and it spawned several more sequels.

…the Final Destination series has turned the world around use into one Rube Goldberg-inspired death trap.

Outside of third sequel, The Final Destination, this was a remarkably consistent series. Like Friday the 13th, fan expectations were pretty simple. Each sequel needed an over-the-top averted disaster that set in motion a series of elaborate, fun death scenes. What’s made the Final Destination franchise so successful has been its ability to turn benign everyday scenarios into horrifying ‘what-if’s’. Just about everyone has braved rush hour traffic, which makes Final Destination Part 2’s opening car crash both thrilling and nerve-racking. Gross sports injuries are a YouTube staple. Of course, we all knew what was coming in Final Destination 5’s gymnastics scene. But the waiting was excruciating, and the payoff was cringe-worthy. Tanning beds, laser eye surgery, suspension bridges – the Final Destination series has turned the world around use into one Rube Goldberg-inspired death trap.

Final Destination Franchise Would Become a Launching Pad for Young Stars

Historically, the horror genre has always been something of a gateway to stardom for unknown actors. Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Leonardo DiCaprio – they all got their big breaks in mostly low-budget horror outings. Given the genre’s tendency to aim for that teen market, horror movies are fond of casting young, attractive performers. For years, The WB Network was something of a factory for teen horror stars. Not surprisingly then, Final Destination boosted several young stars’ careers. As Final Destination’s principal protagonist, Devon Sawa saw a big career boost. Previously, Sawa had a small role in an early mumblecore indie project, SLC Punk. But his first lead role was in box office flop, Idle Hands. Final Destination helped make Sawa a recognizable face to audiences.

Two Dawson’s Creek alum – Ali Larter and Kerr Smith – also got boosts from their Final Destination roles. Larter would later move on to the successful Resident Evil franchise. Several years later, Kerr would have a big role in the My Bloody Valentine remake. Arguably, Sean William Scott benefited the most from his supporting role. Following his breakout performance as ‘Stifler’ in American Pie, Scott’s appearance in Final Destination solidified his career. Final Destination sequels would launch several careers including AJ Cook (Criminal Minds), Keegan Connor Tracy (Supernatural), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Thing). And Final Destination ensured horror fans would get to see more of genre favourite, Tony Todd.

A Horror Franchise Deserving of Another Go-Around

After 20 years since its release, Final Destination has aged considerably well. Even with the surprises removed on repeated viewings, it’s suspenseful, carefully orchestrated death are much like amusement park ride. You can watch them over and over without losing any of the appeal. While it may not be ‘elevated’ horror, James Wong and Glen Morgan’s supernatural slasher is a classic popcorn thriller that gave the 2000’s first legitimate horror franchise. We’re not getting a new Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street movie anytime soon. But a well-made Final Destination sequel doesn’t sound like a bad time at the theatres.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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