20YA: "Final Destination" (dir. James Wong) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

Poster for "Final Destination" (2000 film)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth (or in this case, 20th) anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

Still from "Final Destination"

“I have thought a lot about that ‘somewhere,’ Alex. It exists, that place… where my dad is still safe. Where he had a full pack of cigarettes that night, and just kept driving. Where me and my mom and my dad are still together…and have no idea about this life here. Where our friends are still in the sky. Where everyone gets a second chance. Alex, we can’t give up.

Clear Rivers (Ali Larter)

Horror fandom might be a young man’s game. As a seasoned cinemagoer, you certainly get wise to the tricks of the trade – the jump scares, the cheap thrills, the bone-crunching, fingernail-splitting gore, the (now-standard) shots of someone backing into a crosswalk without looking, etc. – but that’s not what I’m talking about, as it’s hardly the sum of horror anyway. I’m not going to disparage my younger self by suggesting that I care more about the horror of my friends and loved ones dying than I did when I was younger, but the idea of that actually occurring feels less like a vague future abstraction than ever before, and that was true even before we entered a global virus pandemic. At its best, the horror genre inspires relatable fear of things that people are reliably afraid of, but it also inspires existential dread, which is easier to come by when you have a better-developed sense of the world and your place in it. Equipped with a slightly more potent feeling of one’s own mortality and hubris, as your frontal lobes and sense of danger have had a chance to develop, the world gets a bit stranger, and you start to realize that death really is a sad and terrible and verbally taboo part of life that steals away people and experiences and memories that have had far longer to ruminate and develop in value. The potency of real-world dread intensifies, and you either decide that indulging in fake dread is no longer acceptable sport, or your threshold for experiencing it just keeps ticking higher and higher.

Fun fact: Like Alex Browning (Devon Sawa), I took a two-week class trip to France (and Spain) during my senior year of high school. Our flight number? 180, just like the plane that explodes at the start of this film. And you better believe I took great pleasure in telling everyone in the group about that, since dropping movie references and scaring people for no reason is also a young man’s game. But after Alex has a premonition of the group’s imminent demise, he promptly pitches a fit and gets himself and several others thrown off the plane. The plane leaves, and explodes – leading to an awesome (if slightly preposterous) shot and edit in which it explodes, still in view of the airport, then shatters the terminal window a split second later right as a watching character finishes saying “Oh shit!”. This is the first of many Rube Goldberg-esque death mechanics that this film creates, and it’s fair to say that they’re a recipe for chuckles, not existential dread. And in Final Destination, even the most grisly tableaus managed to deliver, as George Carlin might say, a couple of fuckin’ laughs.

Still from "Final Destination"

Suffice to say, the railroad-induced decapitation of Billy Hitchcock (Seann William Scott) met these criteria, and the other characters – who genuinely do not seem to care that Billy has been horrifically killed before their eyes – are too busy figuring out the in-universe rules of Death’s sadistic design to deal with the human tragedy they’ve just witnessed. Should we care? Any residual annoyance at Steve Stifler notwithstanding, I suppose Billy has a few character traits – he likes Whoppers enough to nearly miss an international flight to go buy a carton. He’s weirdly cosplaying as future Kevin Smith with the hockey jersey and jorts, and half his dialogue consists of calling letterman jock Carter Horton (Kerr Smith) a dick after the latter physically assaults him in some way. But no, if I’m being honest, I didn’t care when he died. Nor did I particularly care when Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) – whose prior dialogue consisted solely of telling her boyfriend Carter to be less of a dick – backed into traffic and got pancaked by a speeding bus. That was slapstick. Splatterstick? The spatter stuck. This film’s clear objective – as spelled out by the inimitably vamping Tony Todd as the creepy mortician Bludworth – was to get me to laugh at Death, and since I first saw it in my mid-teens when my fear of death wasn’t offering any real competition, it largely succeeded.

Still from "Final Destination"

But the film dabbles in taking death seriously as well. Following his brother’s death on the plane, survivor Tod (Chad E. Donella), Alex’s best friend, appears at a group memorial. He stands before the assembled mourners and reads a passage from Marcel Proust: “We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast, but when we say this we imagine that hour as placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun or that death could arrive this same afternoon, this afternoon which is so certain and which has every hour filled in advance.” Given that he dies in a preordained (and blue toilet-water-induced) freak accident that very same evening, the quote has additional resonance, but the film goes beyond just quoting notable prose, and actually takes the trouble to give goth outsider Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) a gritty backstory with mortality. She isn’t just one of Death’s would-be victims – she literally has a vendetta against the infernal entity for randomly killing her father, and – after explaining how this backstory fuels her determination, throws in a “Fuck Death!” for good measure. How silly and awesome is that? I could laugh at Clear. Hell, it’s been 20 years – perhaps I did laugh at her. But who among us hasn’t liked some social media post book-ended with “Fuck cancer”? As much as this film indulges in pathos as punctuation between all of the gory spectacle, it at least seems to care more about its characters’ inner lives than a charnel house like the Saw franchise, and the script and performances deserve some credit for that. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. That rage is ever-present, even if it’s of variable quality (Kerr Smith is the weakest link), but Larter and Sawa are uniformly solid, and Sawa even gets a gritty FBI interrogation monologue. Although, since he apparently makes it to and from his local FBI station within the length of a single John Denver song, it’s probably best not to think too hard about the geography, or what Agents Weine (Daniel Roebuck) and Schrek (Roger Guenveur Smith) have going on in their lives that they can appear at multiple death-houses with a few minutes’ notice several nights in a row. Logistics aside, this all mostly works. And it ably sets up the formula that the rest of the franchise would follow: tie a string of Death’s would-be victims together with an fx-fueled spectacle, then spare and ultimately pick them off one by one. While the franchise never quite reached the heights of the first film in terms of giving me characters whose unlikely survival I was rooting for, it at least built its series of escalating thrill rides on a solid foundation – and one that I’ve troubled to rewatch several more times over the last 20 years.

So is horror fandom a young man’s game? I can picture my co-host Daniel’s response. You’re 35, Glenn, shut up. And it’s true that since launching my website, I’ve picked my top film of the year from the horror genre more than once, but it was always something special within that genre. David Robert Mitchell‘s It Follows – in addition to being a delightfully weird ultra-widescreen retrofuturistic design experience – presented an intractable monster that you were utterly alone in facing, the product of your own regrettable choices, and one that for the rest of your life, you will never, ever truly know that you’re safe from. David Lowery‘s A Ghost Story pretends to be a rumination on death and grief, but reveals itself to be a work of existential horror that made me feel the fullness and passage of time so acutely that I experienced what I can only describe as a panic attack while I watched it. Final Destination does not rise to this level. But it is a better-than-average franchise horror starter with a clever concept-villain that can never be defeated or grow stale. It can receive a direct sequel with a new cast at literally any time. Hell, Sawa’s disinterest in returning for FD2 was settled with an off-screen brick. All it needs is someone like Bludworth to explain the rules – or rather, remind characters and viewers alike that they already know the rules – the rules that have dogged them since the day they were born. And until…well, you know the rest.

Stay safe out there.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #99 – “Get Out” (dir. Jordan Peele)

Poster for "Get Out"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel check out comedian Jordan Peele‘s horror and directorial debut, and then gush (39:31).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (né Donald Glover), from the film’s soundtrack.
  • The “Stop and identify” statute that we cited for New York state was N.Y. Criminal Procedure Law, §140.50. In practice, the application of this statute is highly variable, including in New York City, where it was implemented for several years as the program known as “stop and frisk,” which tended to disproportionately target African-American or Latino residents of the city.

Listen above, or download: Get Out (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #68 – “The Lazarus Effect” (dir. David Gelb) (spoiler-edition)

Poster for "The Lazarus Effect"

This week, Glenn wishes The Lazarus Effect would’ve just let him rest in peace, while Daniel offers a tepid, contrarian defense, and spoils The Ring for some reason (19:33).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5/10 (Daniel); 2.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • Music for tonight’s episode is “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, which is better than the movie deserves. I also just noticed George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley are wearing a “CHOOSE LIFE” t-shirt in the video, which is apropos.
  • The horror flick from 2013 that I plugged was indeed Sinister, not Insidious – although they do share a producer. Another fine horror flick I didn’t think of was last year’s Oculus.
  • We mention one our early podcast review of Frozen (the Adam Green horror film, not the Disney film) – check that out here.
  • We were actually drinking Four Roses Single Barrel Kentucky bourbon. Solid. They didn’t pay us for the plug; we just like bourbon.

Listen above, or download: The Lazarus Effect (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” – A Skeptic’s Guide to Horror

Movie poster for

The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus presents a familiar scenario – a cursed object (in this case, a haunted mirror) – that can manipulate reality for anyone in the vicinity. And the film’s heroine, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), seems just as committed as Randi to demonstrating the reality of these powers under properly controlled conditions. For a film that is about both mental illness and supernatural phenomena, Oculus has a magnificently skeptical attitude about the subject matter. Kaylie begins the film by setting up a series of battery-powered cameras, timed events according to battery-powered clocks, and, most importantly, a dead-man switch, in the form of a boat anchor, that will automatically destroy the mirror if its mechanical timer is not deactivated every thirty minutes. It’s Paranormal Activity as acted out by someone with basic critical thinking skills.

Kaylie is not alone in this quest – she is joined by her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who has recently been released from a juvenile mental ward following his 21st birthday. The tragic events which led to his commitment are hinted almost immediately in dialogue, but revealed in detail over the course of the film. And the threat from the mirror becomes clear – it can manipulate either the perceptions of the people in the vicinity, or objective reality. And as the film gradually demonstrates as its masterful editing cuts back and forth between fantasy, reality, and flashback, there’s not a lot of difference between the two. This is really what makes Kaylie such an interesting character – her determination to expose the mirror’s true nature is only matched by her arrogance in presuming that she is any match for it.

Gillan – who is effecting a rather impressive American accent over her native Scottish brogue – plays Kaylie with a tough-as-nails attitude and convincing determination to prove that Tim is not responsible for their family’s tragic past- a claim that is essentially unprovable. And yet her biggest rival, apart from the mirror, is the brother himself. After over a decade in a mental hospital, Tim is well-armed with the kind of critical, reflective thinking (and sheer humility) that it takes to question one’s own perception of reality. Indeed, he has had it drilled into him, and probably reinforced with pharmaceuticals. He criticizes Kaylie for anomaly-hunting – poring through thousands of records to find the dozen or so that fit her tragic story. He trots out the basic logical standby that correlation does not prove causation. And yet, Tim is also biased in favor of reality as we know it, and Kaylie pushes back with a number of convincing methods of objectively measuring and demonstrating the mirror’s “influence”- a radius of potted plants for it to wilt, lights for it to turn off, and so on.

Still from

From this point on, I can’t discuss the finer details of the film’s story without hinting strongly at the mirror’s true nature. So instead, I’ll simply say that this film maintains tension remarkably well. The cat-and-mouse setup is strong, and while the third act leans a bit too far toward jump scares, the film’s gradually escalating tension is fueled by the fact that it’s simultaneously telling two taut and interesting stories. The first is the backstory of Kaylie and her brother as children (played wonderfully by Annalise Basso and passably by Garrett Ryan). We already know the ending of the first story, but as it plays back for the audience, it seems to simultaneously play back in the minds of the adult Kaylie and Tim in a way that could certainly sway the outcome of the present-day story. This film uses every trick up its sleeve to mess with the audience’s perceptions of reality in the same way as it does with its characters. Each time a new outrage appears onscreen, the audience is left to question whether or not they can trust what they’ve just seen, even as the characters are doing the same thing in dialogue.

This really seems like it should bother me on a structural level. The more the film messes with its internal narrative coherence, the less I should care what happens to its characters. But there are several reasons why this method works so well. First, as mentioned above, the film messes with its characters and the audience in equal measure. Second, these are intelligent, well-meaning characters on what seems from the outset like a doomed quest for revenge against an unbeatable enemy – whether that enemy is a magic mirror or their own fractured sanity and violent impulses. And third, while they didn’t choose what happened to their parents, they did choose what is happening to themselves. Mirror or no mirror, they are the architects of this film’s insanity, and they really didn’t have to be.

In a way, this makes the film’s screeching halt of an ending feel perfectly fitting. In a flash, we’re back to reality, and left to make sense of what has happened. That said, I could certainly see someone walking out of this film and listing every one of the factors above as shortcomings of the film. But in the end, Oculus terrified me on many levels (several of them through the varied horrifying expressions of Katee Sackhoff as the duo’s flashback-mother). This film is a marvelous companion piece and rebuttal to James Wan‘s The Conjuring, a film that took for granted both the veracity of its heroes’ supernatural claims, and their nobility and good intentions.

There are no good intentions in this film. Only hubris and rationality in the face of unrelenting terror.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

PS: Lest I end on such a pretentious line, I should probably mention that when the WWE Studios banner inexplicably appeared before this film, it elicited an embarrassingly loud “Huh.” from me, followed by chuckles across my screening audience. Now…I didn’t see John Cena in this film, but I can only assume that the WWE is interested in anything that can make its viewers question reality during a scripted performance. (BOOM!) But I suppose if History and The Learning Channel can let their content drift so far off course, we can afford the same privilege to pro wrestling.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #5: Adam Green’s “Frozen”

Poster for "Frozen"

First we met the Devil, then we got Buried, and now, in the latest installment of this inadvertent “One-Word, One-Room” marathon, Glenn and Daniel pull on their ski boots and review Frozen, a horror film new on DVD and Blu-ray from writer/director Adam Green, starring Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, and Kevin Zegers. (19:59)

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is a little cheeky.
  • Shawn Ashmore, who plays Joe Lynch, also played Bobby “Iceman” Drake in the X-Men films. There’s an awful joke in there somewhere, but it must’ve slipped our minds…
  • Stick around at the end for a blooper!

Listen above, or download: Frozen (right-click, save as)

Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” – Another horror remake? And it’s GOOD?!

Breck Eisner’s The Crazies is the tale of Ogden Marsh, an idyllic Iowa farming community exposed to a biological agent that turns the townspeople turn uncontrollably violent. And I won’t bury the lead on this… It’s one hell of a ride. A deliberate pace, ratcheting sense of doom, and awesome use of setpieces make this an extremely effective horror film. In fact, the last time I had this much fun with a horror remake was with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and from the outset, this film has some stark similarities. It’s another remake of a 70s Romero film featuring another dark Johnny Cash song (in an amusing nod to Dr. Strangelove), and two of the main characters are a cop and a doctor. We get the briefest glimpse at their normal lives, and then all hell breaks loose.

The formula is familiar, but The Crazies does plenty to distinguish itself. Unlike typical zombies, these creatures retain varying degrees of their human intelligence, running the gamut from free-running, flesh-eating monsters to what can only be described as “super-rednecks”. While this makes them only marginally more interesting as characters, it’s still impressive to see zombies put to more substantial use than the nihilistic slaughter fantasy they usually amount to. What’s more, the film takes just enough time to establish an authentic setting and some sympathetic characters with very real stakes. From the outset, Ogden Marsh feels every bit like a real small town, with everyone on a first-name basis with town sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) – also the town’s doctor. When the military moves in to quell the infection, the plot becomes more like 1995’s Outbreak, but told from the perspective of the townspeople. From the moment the hubristic mayor dismisses the impending threat from what might be the only cornfield swimming pool in Iowa, the film barrels forward and never lets up. The result is a very well-paced chase thriller, told through the eyes of these characters by way of some brilliant but simple setpieces (there’s a sequence in the third act involving a drive-through carwash that I can only describe as pure joy).

As I think back, the tone of this film seems remarkably well balanced. There are many genuinely terrifying moments, and it adequately conveys the senseless human tragedy of it all while never shying away from a healthy dose of pitch-black humor. As it went on, I found myself genuinely afraid for the lives of the remaining characters, but could still chuckle as Timothy Olyphant took a sprawling tumble onto the floor of a funeral home and narrowly escaped getting his scrotum sliced open by a runaway electric bone saw. Indeed, Eisner’s direction makes a number of admirable choices, seemingly utilizing jump scares for the sole purpose of screwing with the audience, and then jarring them out of their seats as they slowly realize there’s an out-of-focus super-zombie still and salivating in the corner of the room.

The performances are quite adept, establishing a tense and believable dynamic between the three characters. Olyphant has long since proven that he can do no wrong as a small-town sheriff, and he and Mitchell make a convincing married couple, their performances helped along by many effective little moments of dialogue (“Don’t ask me why I can’t leave without my wife, and I won’t ask you why you can leave without yours”). Additionally, the shifting relationship between sheriff and deputy is one of the most fascinating aspects to the film. Between Anderson’s adept performance and the character’s well-written arc, the deputy’s plot stirs a sense of imminent danger and infection paranoia unparalleled since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As soon as the credits rolled, I typed a single line for this review, demanding that Breck Eisner come down to my theater immediately and pry me loose from the edge of my seat. When I wrote up the film’s balls-out-audacious trailer back in October, I expected this film to be a good bit of cheese – a solid, shlocky B-horror film. What I finally saw was that and much more. Eisner’s direction balances the tone of the film perfectly, injecting just the right mix of horror, comedy, and drama. The allegorical elements are none-too-subtle, from the concentration camps to the good soldier who “didn’t sign up for this,” but they still imbue the film with some welcome depth. The Crazies takes the relatively straightforward premise of “zombies that can think” and turns it into a menacing and memorable piece of horror.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10