By the year 2000, the ensemble teen slasher movie was beginning to feel decidedly old. With a plethora of mediocre teen horrors having followed the success of Scream in 1996. However, despite this, one film, The Faculty managed to break the mould in 1998. By re-imagining the classic science fiction/horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a teen audience. And in turn, paving the way for a set of uniquely different teen horrors from Final Destination to Jeepers Creepers. With studios openly exploring new and fresh approaches to a slasher genre born in the late 1970s. In turn, taking ideas from a growing TV market in science fiction and horror. With shows such as The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and American Gothic becoming sources of cinematic inspiration.
Final Destination came from the imagination of Jeffrey Reddick, his work destined for The X-Files TV treatment. However, on advice from New Line Cinema, Reddick was encouraged to flesh his script out to a feature-length copy; working alongside The X-Files series writers Glen Morgan and James Wong on the final screenplay. The resulting story destined to not only breathe new life into the teen horror market but also create a unique and powerful franchise.
Deaths Sadistic Design
It is common knowledge that the only real certainty of life is death. A truth and fear that has transcended the boundaries of religion, belief and culture throughout human civilisation. While equally finding itself translated into film throughout the history of the medium. With the Grim Reaper appearing as a central character in films ranging from The Seventh Seal to A Christmas Carol. Each appearance of the character embodying the finality and fear of a figure synonymous with the Black Death in 14th Century Europe.
The 1990s saw a resurgence of the Grim Reaper in film and TV, while writers equally tried to modernise the ancient figure of folklore. With both film and television exploring the mythology of the Reaper, while embedding this within a human fear of deaths inescapable grasp.
Meet Joe Black premiered in cinemas in 1998, combining a unique love story with themes of mortality. With the figure of death allowing a young man (Brad Pitt) to live on after a hit and run accident. However, this came with the condition that he allow death to take his body and experience the one thing, it failed to understand. Love. Regardless, nothing can circumnavigate the need for death to claim a soul, even when saving another. This theme would also find a voice in Final Destination two years later; where deaths plan carries a forward motion, no matter of the human desire to survive or cheat mortality.
While Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners equally played on the human fear of death, layering its narrative with dark comedy and horror. With the 14th Century figure of the Reaper unmasked as two ghostly serial killers hellbent on claiming more lives. Meanwhile on television Reaper and Pushing Daisies both re-imagined and subverted the character of the Reaper. The concept of life and death coexisting in a pre-determined universe of human experience. And even in gaming, the Grim Reaper found himself at the forefront of the Playstation revolution, with Grim Fandango.
It is difficult to accept death in this society because it is unfamiliar. In spite of the fact that it happens all the time, we never see it
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (Death: The Final Stage of Growth, 1975)
But, out of all these films, shows and games, it was Final Destination that rose to the top of the pile with its fresh portrayal of death—releasing the character from his hood, gown and sickle. While at the same time creating a far more scary force in cinema; the unseen assailant who won’t let anything come in the way of his assigned victim.
Planes, Dreams and Slippery Floors
From the outset, Final Destination understands the deepest fears we carry in our daily lives. Fears that niggle at the corners of our subconscious mind, no matter how confident we may appear to be. And by dovetailing these subconscious fears with the ultimate, uncontrollable serial killer, Final Destination embeds itself into our subconscious. Not only ensuring its success as a modern horror movie but equally transcending the boundaries of the teen slasher film.
As John Denver sings out across a busy airport, flight 180 marks the start of Final Destinations rollercoaster of horror. By latching onto a fear of flying, while at the same time dovetailing this within the dreams that often haunt our daily lives. From the outset, Alex has a feeling of impending disaster, one born of small coincidences, cemented by a horrific dream. Mirroring a collective human fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, while also asking the question ‘Should I trust my intuition?’
These fears play into our inbuilt human desire to be in control of the world around us. While at the same time, toying with our primaeval fear of death. For example, the act of boarding a plane, where our lives lay in the hands of technology, pilots and nature. Our lack of individual control creating fear and apprehension. But, despite this, it is our daily lives that carry the highest risk; the small tasks we complete with little thought of mortality and death. And it’s here where Final Destination excels. Whether that be in the form of a speeding bus and a simple lack of concentration or slippery bathroom floor. With the familiar pattern of life hiding more risks than we consider, while the significant events, while never risk-free, consume our thoughts.
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live
Marcus Aurelius 121 AD – 180 AD
But, Final Destination doesn’t stop with our fear of death, with its narrative equally reflecting how this fear can stop us from living. As we witness Alex barricade himself in a shed, trying to cheat the inevitable, while similarly denying himself the opportunity to live and love. In turn, reflecting the superhuman feelings associated with teenage life, and the vibrant energy and belief in overcoming anything, even death. The truth of human mortality not yet having cast its shadow upon the teenager through close friends or family. And while Final Destination may suggest a grand design in life and death, it equally asks us to reflect on how we would act if this were true.
And maybe it is here where Final Destination is at its most potent—challenging our fear of the inevitable end, while also demonstrating that death does not discriminate based on age. No matter how superior we may feel, or how much we wish to live. The spectre of its unknowable, uncontrollable force often descending with little warning: something that should drive us to live and cherish each moment, no matter of our age. For when death comes knocking surely its how we have lived that is more important than how we die.
Director: James Wong